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Kids at Work

by on July 24, 2012 10:38 AM

Children have been exhibiting building skills with various toys for hundreds of years, but there has been a loyal following of the indelible plastic bricks manufactured by Lego since they first hit the market in 1947. For countless boys and girls, it’s simply a rite of passage when progressing from the “big bricks” (known as Duplos) to the smaller, more challenging pieces.

For at least two groups of local students, Legos are much more than that. They are a means to express creativity while learning multifaceted elements of science and technology as well as other academic and nonacademic skills. These students are part of First Lego League (FLL), an international-competition partnership between FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) and the Lego Group, aimed at children ages 9 to 14. FLL reaches more than 200,000 students per year in 60 countries worldwide.

Palvan Amanov, an IT specialist at Young Scholars of Central PA Charter School (YSCP) in State College, founded an FLL group for YSCP. The new extracurricular activity was offered for the first time during the 2011-12 school year. Another local team making waves in FLL is State College Area Robotics (SCAR), composed of a group of home-schooled children.

Amanov, who has an interest in robotics, especially the building component, says he wanted to share this passion with the students at YSCP. After research, he discovered that FLL had the best competitions available for the participants.

“I didn’t know much going in,” he admits, “but we learned together as the season progressed.”

A theme for the competition year is announced by FLL (this past season it was food contamination), and the challenge, based on a real-world scientific topic, and guiding rubrics are released in September. There are three subdivisions to each contest: a robotics sector, where teams design and program autonomous Lego robots, utilizing the Lego Mindstorms NXT kit, to complete a series of tasks within a given time allotment; a project sector, where teams are given a problem (relating back to the given theme) and then complete a research assignment, discover an innovative solution, and exhibit findings to a panel of judges; and a core-values sector, where teams illustrate how well they work together and demonstrate individual capability with each member playing a definitive role.

The function of Amanov, along with his co-coach, Sarah Naeem, is to be a mentor and advocate for Danila Berezin (11 years old), Isha Chakraborty (11), Riya Chakraborty (11), Jason Gines II (11), Roshan Haque (11), Oliver Rose (12), and Esman Umarov (12) — otherwise known as Robo Scholars.

Especially at the beginning of the competition year, these students dedicate copious amounts of time to the cause. “We met after school every Tuesday and Thursday, as well as a number of Saturday mornings,” Amanov explains. “We had to work hard, especially at the beginning because this was a first for all involved. Yes, there were some students who were good with electronics; others with building. But there were elements of hardware, software, and sensors, too, and that was all new to the students.

“It took several weeks to familiarize them with the introductory yet sophisticated programming on the computer. Now, they are all comfortable with the programming language. They have come so far.”

Constructing the robot, named Beemo, was a common preference for many of the students. “Using technology to build robots to perform different tasks was my favorite part,” Gines II says.

“It was fun putting parts together to build the robot,” agrees Umarov. “And when we got trophies that showcased our work, it was so cool!”

Yet kids will be kids. “My favorite part was skipping classes!” Haque boldly states with a sly grin.

Equally as important in the learning process is overcoming challenges — such as fitting the robot within the size and weight specifications. “It’s hard to make a robot do 10 different tasks within the set guidelines,” says Rose.

“The design and structure process wasn’t easy,” adds Isha Chakraborty. “It’s hard to picture how it’s going to look and if it’s going to work once it’s put together.”

In addition to parlaying excitement about science and technology and just plain being fun, the involved individuals acquire many other applicable life skills, equally evident to the students and adults associated with this team, no matter the capacity.

For example, Gines’s father, Jason, found it easy to support his son’s newfound extracurricular activity even though it ate up a lot of family time.

“My son has learned lifelong lessons … lessons that can be transferred to his grades, his life,” the elder Gines says. “He has learned that to see reward, and to achieve something great, you need to put in the time — have a dedicated work ethic.

“The discipline he has shown is in no small part due to Palvan’s commitment to the program. It is a sure reflection of the advisors’ involvement.”

What do the students think?

“Being involved in FLL has taught me cooperation,” says Haque. “It is easier to use teamwork to get through difficult situations than to try to find an answer on my own.”

Gines II adds, “We troubleshoot together. There really is no arguing because your team needs you.”

And Rose acknowledges how being part of the team has helped him prepare for other activities. “Above all, it’s helped with any amount of stage fright I used to have,” he says with a touch of satisfaction.

The Robo Scholars’ arduous perseverance paid off with several awards won at the competitions they entered. At their qualifying tournament in Pottstown, the team was awarded first place for Robot Performance as well as second place overall. At the regional tournament, held in Philadelphia, the team took the first-place honor for Innovation and Strategy.

“One of the most exciting things I learned through this process is that kids are able to achieve anything if they work hard and are regularly guided toward a goal,” Amanov humbly says. “It takes the whole team to collaborate and be determined to succeed. This includes parents, who may not be at the front end of the whole story.”

Jen Dangelo decided to take on coaching the State College Area Robotics team after hearing about FLL from a friend. She knew of several children from a homeschooling group with which she is involved that she thought might be interested and be willing to dedicate the time needed. When she joined with her three daughters — Gracie (11 years old), Ruthie (13), and Sarah (14) — she was able to form a team. This was their second year of competing.

In addition to Dangelo’s three children, the team has Charlotte Getson (14), Bridget Gindhart (13), Jacob Gindhart (14), Ben Servey (10), and Katelyn Servey (13).

While still difficult to coincide schedules to put in the much-needed time to make the team effort worthwhile, these children (and their families) do enjoy a bit more flexibility when arranging their twice-weekly meetings. Dangelo starts her meetings with teamwork activities.

“We need something to bring us together, keep enthusiasm levels up, and get us to focus,” she says. Her group took note of this coaching mentality and moved forward together.

“It takes a lot of teamwork,” says Katelyn Servey. “If you try to do any of it individually, you won’t get anywhere.”

Even though much of the effort is science-based, Dangelo is thrilled with the multiplicity of skills her team acquires throughout the process.

“They have learned so much in a real-world experience … things that simply can’t be taught from a book,” she says. “They gain knowledge of presentation skills, research, writing, vocabulary, problem solving, critical thinking, and public speaking. To see them continually improve brings a lot of joy.”

SCAR also is similar to Robo Scholars in their expressions of positivity when asked about being involved with the program.

“The best part is getting together and hanging out as a team,” Katelyn Servey expresses. “We’re having so much fun, it doesn’t even seem like work!”

Then she (slightly begrudgingly) adds, “It’s even brought me closer to my brother.”

And just like Robo Scholars, the members of SCAR were rewarded for their tenacity at the competitions they entered. At their qualifier in Philadelphia, they were awarded first place overall. They followed that with a third-place overall finish at the state competition, also held in Philadelphia.

“We could tell that we had put in more time than other competing teams,” says Jacob Gindhart. “We felt like we tried harder, so the payoff felt right.”

In addition to being a time obligation, being part of FLL is a financial commitment. Dangelo was quick to point out that one of SCAR’s biggest challenges was having enough money to earn the supplies needed to compete.

In fact, just one NXT kit costs around $260, and both Robo Scholars and SCAR had at least two with which to experiment and build the best robot they could. Couple that expense with the cost of travel, hotel stays, and food bills during competitions, and the amount spent per family swiftly adds up.

Linda Getson, mother to one child on the team and a staunch supporter of SCAR, stepped forward to take on a “sponsorship role.” She asked local businesses for donations (their names are on the back of the team T-shirts worn to competitions) and helped organize a yard sale with all proceeds going toward the cost of the NXT kits. SCAR will once again be looking for community sponsors in the coming competition year.

Although FLL may be more widely known for the robotics component of their competitions, it is the students’ research-based projects that are equally impressive. This past academic year, each team had to explore a problem that today’s scientists are trying to solve relating to food contamination.

Robo Scholars invented the “Frozonizor” — a device designed to be attached into a refrigerator vegetable crisper to eliminate bacteria from fruits and vegetables using ozone technology. While eliminating bacteria, which, the team researched, is a common cause of more than 25 million illnesses and 1,300 deaths in the United States annually, the Frozonizor also extends the life of fruits and vegetables.

The outbreak of listeria in cantaloupes helped move SCAR in the direction it pursued. The team discovered a way to remove listeria from cantaloupes using a short blast of steam followed by a drying component (and then steam and dry once more), and it aimed its findings to cantaloupe farmers. The “steam and dry” would not affect the fruit, it determined, because of its thick skin.

Allison Felix, the operational partner for the Southwest/Central Pennsylvania FLL region, can’t speak highly enough about the merits of FLL.

“It is an extremely well-done program and is so much more than a robot competition. It is based on FLL core values, including their trademarked ‘gracious professionalism’ and ‘cooperitition.’ It provides students with the opportunity to apply science, math, technology, and engineering-design knowledge and process skills to work in teams, conduct research, solve problems, and communicate information,” she says. “It is so engaging because it is all done in an atmosphere that is similar to a sporting event. It’s even known as ‘sport for the mind.’ ”

In addition to helping children learn how to be competitors, FLL stresses the value of recognizing the importance of nonsuccesses as well.

“Students need to understand the value of persistence and learning from failure rather than being dejected,” Felix says. “It is our hope that they also learn that to complete the challenge and compete in the tournament is an accomplishment in itself.”

Above all is the sense of self-satisfaction each involved individual feels.

Amanov sums up his first year leading the Robo Scholars saying, “It was worth it. It was worth it.”

Amy King is a contributor to Town&Gown, and teaches preschool at Grace Lutheran Preschool & Kindergarten. She lives in State College with her husband and three children.
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