Block party brings out robots, their creators

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Eight-year-old Warwick resident Aurora Christiansen felt right at home Sunday as she and her teammates proudly displayed their First Lego League Jr. (FLL Jr.) project, Bee S.M.A.R.T. (St. Mary Academy Robotics Team), at this year's Robot Block Party. Not intimidated by the buzz of the robots or the hundreds in attendance, she was ready to share what she likes most about being a participant in the day's event.

"I like presenting, I like everything," she said. "I think building all this stuff and programming is the best part of Lego League.”

She and her fellow Bay View third graders were among the first people arriving at Brown University's Pizzitola Sports Center Sunday, which became a temporary home to more than 40 groups ready to show off their latest robot creations. The girls were ready to explain LEGO robotics to any of the numerous people in attendance. Their jungle-themed project was based on the challenge “Creature Craze” handed out by the FLL Jr. and had to include a robotic element.

In it, students focused on the honeybee and choose an animal, in this case a sloth that lives in the same habitat. This not only gave them the opportunity to learn about the animal kingdom but basic engineering, designing, programming, teamwork and perseverance skills.

"They went back and retooled and refined until they got it right," says co-coach Christine Medeiros, whose 8-year-old daughter Madison is on the team.

The First Lego League Jr. is an exciting opportunity for 6-10-year-old boys and girls to hone their creativity while exploring real life science topics. Tara Christiansen, Aurora's mom and also co-coach of the all-girl team, speaks of the benefits children gain through participation.

"It's more than just robotics. It teaches the girls to be science researchers, creators, presentation skills, teamwork skills and respecting each other." she said, adding that it "teaches engineering principles, beginner computer programming and, lastly, it's all hands-on, which kids at this age love."

Also displaying their robotic creation were Pilgrim High School students along with their coach and technical education teacher, Larry West, who said students gain access to cutting edge technology through participation.

"Students have to find and work with engineers. We're always looking for engineers to come in and assist us," he said.

The students, who travel to city elementary schools and teach those youngsters robotics, are also in charge of their own fundraising and reach out to companies in hopes of gaining sponsors for their robot's components. Four-year member Nick Leland, who is headed to the New England Institute of Technology in the fall, has had many valuable positions on the team. Starting out as a junior builder and working his way up to both senior builder and senior programmer, he now serves as team captain.

"It's a really great program," he said. "When I started high school I didn't know what I wanted to do. I found out about robotics and it let me look into different fields of engineering and showed me what I wanted to do for my life career."

Through their project, they learned drafting, prototyping, coding, designing and theory, which are things not learned in a typical classroom setting. Through what the Lego League calls “gracious professionalism,” which encourages competitors to respect and appreciate each other. For instance, if during competition (or throughout the year), if an opponent’s machinery or battery has issues, it isn't unusual for an opposing team to help.

Also on display was an impressively-sized drone from the Warwick-based company Xactsense. According to its website, the company develops drone systems for inspection, surveying and mapping using cameras and 3D laser scanners, making it easier to survey vertical structures, such as cell towers, in place of dangerous and expensive climbers.

The Robot Block party featured exhibits from industry, universities, K-12 schools and community organizations. It also featured a parade of autonomous robot floats that traveled along the parade route. It was held shortly after National Robotics Week (April 8-16), where the purpose is to celebrate the United States as a leader in robotics technology, educate the public about how robotics impacts society, advocate for robotics technology funding and lastly, to inspire children of all ages to pursue STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) related careers.

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