Local teams shine at LEGO League Championship

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While the Robowolves, a team from Jamestown, won the Champion's Award, the Roger Williams University scholarship and the opportunity to compete in the FIRST World Festival in April, local teams also had a strong showing at the FIRST LEGO League Rhode Island Championship on Saturday, Jan. 13.

Organized by Rhode Island Students of the Future, and supported by National Grid, the Verizon Foundation and the Textron Charitable Trust, FIRST LEGO League is a global program that encourages kids to explore an annual theme - this year making water safer and more available - through the lens of robotics and innovation.

Teams built and programmed a robot using the LEGO Mindstorms EV3 system that moved about a playing field scoring points by completing tasks, and they identified a research question related to the water cycle and created an innovative solution to address it.

During the opening ceremonies, United States Representative Jim Langevin (D – 2nd District), said the FIRST LEGO League is an example of how STEAM programs benefit students and get them thinking about ways to improve the world. 

Our Lady of Mercy's Tech Tsunami, a team that included Christian Butera and Levi Burdon (both from Warwick), Blake Sykes, Henry Wind, Evan Franchina and Mark Andraka, won the Robot Programming Award, which recognized them for learning intermediate and advanced coding skills using the LEGO EV3 system. 

Coach Bea Lukens, who teaches technology at the East Greenwich Catholic School, said at the beginning of the season the team starting building a robot from the LEGO EV3, which is a box of LEGO elements, motors, sensors and "brain" that can be programmed to control the electronic elements. Rather than relying on the standard blocks of code that make the robot move, the team learned to create their own logic blocks, which improved how their robot reacted to sensor input. Team member Mark Andraka learned how to make his own blocks of code that the whole team could use, and shared his knowledge with the rest of the team. They programmed blocks to control distance, speed, and light calibration.

The Robo Squids, including Daniel Blanco and Alex Sulyma of Warwick and Andrew Corsi of Jamestown, received the Robot Design award. Coach Walter Sulyma said the team was recognized for their simple and nimble robot design. The robot was front-wheel drive, and had 3 motors and two color sensors. The strategy paid off, as the team's robot scored 190 points and the team swapped five attachments on and off of the robot to attempt different tasks during the 2.5 minute round. The RoboSquids finished in 3rd place in the robot performance portion of the competition. They were also the first place alternates for the FIRST LEGO League Global Innovation Award, finishing just behind the Architectonas from All Saints STEAM Academy in Middletown.

The Global Innovation Award is a worldwide program that recognizes the inventive solutions that teams create during their projects, and includes a process to prototype and patent the team's solution. The Robosquids designed a bathroom faucet that uses touch technology to cut down on the 6.6 gallons of water that people use, on average, every time they brush their teeth.

Saint Mary Academy, Bay View's Robotics Team (S.M.A.R.T.), which included Olivia Thayer of Warwick, Jillian Nguyen, Faith Blais, Lindsey Williams and Tess Briden, won the Core Values teamwork award. "The team of strong-minded young women had many differing opinions," said coach Linda Grasso, "yet fully embraced the FIRST LEGO League core value that we accomplish more when we work together."

More than 32,000 teams from 88 countries participate in the FIRST LEGO League, according to the FIRST LEGO League website. In Rhode Island, more than 70 teams from public, private and parochial schools, community organizations and home-based teams registered for the HYDRODYNAMICS season. Forty advanced to the state championship through one of four qualifying tournaments. 

"Our goal is to give 9-14 year-olds an opportunity to experience how engineering and technology can be tools to solve community problems," said Mary Johnson, who serves on the Board of Directors of Rhode Island Students of the Future, the nonprofit that manages the FIRST LEGO League program in Rhode Island. "FIRST LEGO League teams discover there are many ways to approach a problem, and that failing is part of the process. They learn to persist and iterate in order to improve. They practice communicating their ideas with their peers and in the larger community using what we call 'gracious professionalism'. FIRST LEGO League teams give me a sense that the future is in good hands." 

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