Greene County has a growing number of students learning robotics through FIRST Lego League. On December 7-8, two separate teams competed in the Lego League state competition at James Madison University: the Ruckersville Elementary School “City Shakers,” made up of fourth-and fifth-grade students, finished well; and the William Monroe Middle School “Electro Wizards,” a team of three eighth-grade boys, placed in the top 15 in Division II.
Lego League is a robotics competition for kids aged 9 to 14 first introduced in Virginia in 1999 whose goal is to introduce students to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) skills while approaching current scientific and technological problems in a small team setting. Teams research and present a project designed to improve their community. The main event, the Robot Games, is performed by a team-built LEGO robot that has been programmed by the students using Mindstorm software (developed by Lego) to complete certain “missions” in a short time frame.
In addition to the robot challenge, teams are judged on their teamwork skills, robot design, and the presentation of their research project. Through Lego Robotics, students learn the importance of teamwork and realize that they can make an impact on their community.
At Ruckersville Elementary School, the 11-member team “City Shakers” has been working since August to prepare for the regional competition, at which they received first place in their division. The students, all fourth- and fifth-graders, chose to focus their Innovation Project on playground safety, a topic of great interest to everyone on the team. While the original project idea was to design a perfect playground, research showed the cost of a new playground to be around $150,000. Instead, the kids chose to examine their existing playground to seek opportunities for improvement.
The solution? Mulch.
In addition to a few items in need of repair or replacement, the kids tested the ground cover of their school playground and discovered that the existing mulch was not deep enough to meet safety recommendations. In addition, it was compacted and starting to decompose. After thorough research of the recommended depths and types of playground flooring material available, the students chose the most efficient and inexpensive method of repairing the playground and formed a plan to inform the school principal and the PTA.
After presenting their findings to officials, the kids were able to raise more than $800 from a silent auction and with private donations, they were able to gather enough funding to replace the mulch and improve the safety of their beloved playground. They also created a YouTube video to share their project and findings with other groups and to present to the judges at competition.
Donna Shifflett, Ruckersville Elementary School STEM Teacher and Lego League team coach, credits the Greene County 4-H Club’s grant money with the team’s success this year. Thanks to the generous funding received from Siemens Corporation last year, the team was able to purchase 11 EV3 robots, valued at about $5500. Next year, of course, they will dismantle the robots and begin anew with the team.
“It made a tremendous difference in teaching students to code because every child had their own robot. Only one [student] could code when they came in here, and all 11 can now,” Shifflett said.
The students use a type of visual-based coding called “block” coding, which enables them to drag and drop segments into a program that is downloaded into the small robot from a laptop. The robot can then move, turn and perform tasks based on readings of its surroundings.
“When you see the coding … I’m getting chills just thinking about it,” Shifflett said.
In less than two minutes, fourth-grade student Mukund Marri was able to explain how to program the robot to move and turn. By plugging in a color sensor to the existing machine, the program would respond to a color “seen” by the robot: “If it sees that color, it’ll do something… it won’t move until it senses the color,” Marri explained.
That technique could be used to have the robot follow lines on the game board to reach its objectives.
Shifflett explained that the students only have two and a half minutes to get as many points as possible. The students line up in order and each complete a mission on the board as quickly as possible.
“If it works, they can throw a building into that tree,” Shifflett said, pointing out a Lego tree with construction blocks on the board. The missions include everything from driving the robot across a Lego bridge to moving blocks into a circle on the board or knocking items over in a certain way.
Shifflett was unable to coach the Lego team last year due to a cancer diagnosis and treatment. Now recovered, she said “one of the exciting things was being able to return to the robotics club this year … to watch the kids grow from 10 individual people into a team.”
Passionate about teaching STEM skills to all the kids who come through her classroom, Shifflett said her goals for her students are long term: “I want them to have better critical thinking skills when they go to middle school.”
Kathy Alstat, local 4-H leader with the Virginia Cooperative Extension and assistant team coach, has the kids pick their own leaders for weekly meetings.
“They have to do a challenge at competition and they don’t know what it’s going to be until they get there, so we do a lot of team-building activities.”
Through the small team size, students are able to gain confidence through team practices and competitions, she said.
Parents Ram and Sri Marri first approached the school about starting a Lego League team with their son three years ago. Because there was no existing team or teacher able to coach, the parents decided to take on the responsibility of hosting and funding the team themselves. Now in their third year, the three eighth-grade boys were thrilled to be going on to the state finals in Harrisonburg.
“When we first started this team, I was the rookie,” says eighth-grader Thomas Traber.
The other two boys, Akhil Marri and Mushtaq Faiz, had participated in Division I before moving up to middle school, and Akhil’s younger brother is a member of the Ruckersville Elementary School team. Sri Marri, a computer programmer, assists in teaching the younger team the basics of coding with the block system, as well as coaching the middle schoolers.
For their Innovation Project, the Electro Wizards wanted to help Greene County grow by proposing cost-effective ‘Smart Office’ solutions to county officials. The team met with Jim Frydl, director of planning and zoning administrator, and Mark Taylor, county administrator, to identify problems within the county buildings and public areas of Stanardsville. Because many county offices are in the process of being renovated, the students hoped to share the increased efficiency of technology like smartphone-controlled or motion-activated lighting and HVAC systems and inter-office video calling and cloud-based computer systems.
“We were seeing a lack of innovative technologies in the workplace, so we wanted to propose to them implementing Smart Offices into their own county buildings,” Traber said.
“Advancement of technology can help in the growth of our county, so we came up with Smart Offices which can help people’s everyday lives,” Faiz said.
Akhil Marri noted that one major drawback of having internet-controlled devices is the security of information. Their own prototype program is protected by two separate passwords.
Rather than a simple presentation to the judges and local administrators, the boys built a prototype “office in a box” out of plywood and incorporated a ‘Raspberry Pi’ minicomputer with an open source operating system, a router to connect to their laptop over a local-area network (LAN) and motion-control sensors. Using Home Assistant software, Traber was able to adjust lighting levels and turn a fan (representing the HVAC unit) on an off wirelessly or set it up to react to the motion sensor.
According to their coaches, the boys wanted to show how easy it would be to implement these technologies in Greene County offices in order to save on power and utility costs and increase connectivity between the various buildings in town.
Traber also said the group utilized a program called Slack to stay in contact and track completion of tasks. The program, which also works in conjunction with scheduling, document editing and video chat applications, can be used to keep team members in various locations in constant contact while working on projects and save time while improving communications between teams.
The Division II team’s robot is larger and more complex than the elementary school’s, and includes removable parts, such as a dual-axis forklift for moving items around the board. Over the three years they’ve been working together, the boys have learned to create more complex programs allowing their robot to complete multiple missions in one fluid movement, saving time in the competition. Through a point–to-difficulty ratio, they chose to focus on the easier missions which would earn them the most points.
The team also created a video to showcase their robot’s unique design, which they created without help from their coaches. In the three years they’ve served as a team, the boys have learned to rely less on their coaches while expanding their knowledge of the systems involved in the project.
“Initially, two years ago, there was a lot of working closely with them especially when it comes to robot missions, helping them with programming, telling them how to calibrate,” said Ram Marri, coach and parent. “Those were things that helped them initially, but three years down the line, pretty much they’ve been on their own. A lot has changed.”
Traber, who looks forward to participating in more in-depth programming as part of the high school’s robotics team next year, explained how their programming blocks became more complex as they built in systems for self-correction of errors.
“We built our own Proportional Integral Derivative (PID) program, which uses mathematical concepts to correct for line errors and then go back on the line,” he said.
The corrective subsystems can then be added to an existing program with one click.
Sri Marri said the boys have essentially created their own troubleshooting programs.
In competition, the team has a practice run and then three attempts, the highest-scoring of which is entered as their final total. At the regional competition last month, Traber recalled that in the final run, “everything stopped working … but all of us were laughing. We were having fun with it. It shows how our team has grown.”
“This year, when we got into robotics, we didn’t have the mindset of winning; we just wanted to learn as much as we could about [coding]. It turned out that we did win, and that was very exciting,” he added.
All three years that the boys have competed as a team, they have won the regional competition. They also each built their own computers, which helped in learning the basics of computer construction. Although they always do their best in competition, the computing and engineering skills they’re learning will serve them well in high school and beyond, and the ability to work well as a team will help them succeed in any field.