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Nature’s (Lego) fury


Kids engineer Lego robots in order to save the human race — and possibly win a world title.

Danniel Parker November 6th, 2013

“A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” This is Isaac Asimov’s first law of robotics and the core principle of the machines that serve their human child creators and overlords.

Together, hand-in-cog, 22 teams of human offspring will compete at the Oklahoma City leg of the First Robotics Lego League Nature’s Fury Challenge. Robots compete to save the humanoids 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at the Bruce Gray Center on the Francis Tuttle Technology Center’s Portland Campus, 3500 NW 150th St.

The competition is twofold. First, the children were tasked with engineering solutions to problems caused by natural disasters. Secondly, Lego Mindstorm bots will battle in timed missions where they’ll try to aid Lego miniatures by clearing roadways from fallen Lincoln Logs or moving Tonka trucks away from flooded areas of a grid, for example.

Winners get a chance to move on to state and regional competitions and, ultimately, dominating the entire world, or at least a chance to win the Lego League World Championship in St. Louis. Each year, there are competitions held in over 60 countries and multiple competitions in every state in the nation.

“Since the topic this year is natural disasters, a lot of designs will surely be tornado-related,” Bryan Kitzrow said.

Kitzrow is a pre-engineering instructor at Francis Tuttle who is helping organize the event. His children also are competing on a team. He said although none of the robots built would ever actually be used in the field during natural disasters, the theoretical ideas the middle school students come up with each year are interesting.

“This year, my kids are working on a flash flood barrier for homes,” Kitzrow said. “If flooding is coming on short notice, they’ve designed a disposable laminated cardboard apron that could provide a temporary barrier for a home.”

He said disguising the act of innovation as play is an effective teaching tool.

Facing real-world problems and finding solutions gives kids a taste of real engineering, he said. 

“Nobody in school really wants to go to science or math class because it doesn’t seem relevant. But with Lego League competitions, kids have a real reason to understand things like geometric angles and the science and math involved in programming their robot’s brain.”

Their robot’s brain is a computer processor connected to servomotors. Kids send input via remote control, and the input is picked up by infrared sensors.

The robot’s bodies are held together by a matrix of Legos connecting the motors to the wheels, treads or feet.

In 2011, the Ozments, a homeschooled family from Oklahoma, won the right to enter the world championships. Eventually, Katerina, Wyatt, Colleen, Aiden and Luke — aged 8 to 14 — lost to a team from Japan.

Elaine Ozment was their coach and is also their mom. That year, the topic was engineering solutions to problems with food safety. She said her kids found the problem with remembering food safety rules was that it was so boring. So they formed a solution.

“We came up with the idea of making a Wii video game about food safety where you’d control a chef who would learn regulations from mini-games,” Ozment said.

Team Ozment’s robot looked like a Nintendo Entertainment System atop four wheels with a bulldozer front. Looming above was a rotating crane attached to lifting forks, where add-ons could quickly be attached.

“I recommend that other people get their kids involved and coach a team. You don’t need to know anything about programming going in.” 

 
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