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Junior high students in control as robots romp Lego landscape


From left, junior high pupils Alex Silverman, 10, and Chad Liber, 11, both of Stone Hebrew Academy of Toledo, race robots through a miniature city built from Legos. The robots were required to perform certain tasks in COSI competition yesterday.

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The Ottawa Hills Green Gears have all the brains in place needed to build a robot.

The design team includes Mickey Swab, programmer; Eric Richards, team builder; Rowan Williams, team tester; Will Scharer, research director; Matthew Baron, team designer; Chris Swonger, technical presentation director, and RJ Marcus, team hypothesis director.

If it sounds pretty complicated - “team hypothesis director?” - it is. But then robots like the one the guys built that can clear soccer fields of boulders and fix damaged bridges aren't built by just anyone.

No, they're assembled out of Legos by students not old enough to drive, but who are capable of programming a VCR better than their parents.

The Ottawa Hills Green Gears had an exhibition match yesterday at COSI at which they tested their robot against those built by students from other area schools. The match was a warm-up for the Lego League State Tournament. The state qualifying round for 18 teams from the Toledo area is Thursday, 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., at the Toledo Technology Academy.

New Hampshire inventor Dean Kamen came up with the idea of having junior high students build a robot with a computer brain and Lego parts. Mr. Kamen invented the Segway scooter that is used in Toledo to collect parking change, and he has long had an interest in encouraging children to pursue math and science careers.

Mr. Kamen decided students should have a way to make math and science fun, so each year teams from around the world compete in FIRST LEGO League. The league is a competition for students 9 to 14, and each year a new challenge is given to students. This year, teams must design a robot that, through its programming and not aided by a remote, solves several challenges.

Each robot is set in a miniature city and has to clear a soccer field of boulders, fix a bridge, collect food, and do other tasks. Granted, everything in the city, including the boulders, is made of tiny Legos. But it's no small task to program a robot to maneuver around the city, avoid obstacles, and complete the tasks; all in less than 21/2 minutes.

Yesterday, many of the teams ran into some problems. East Toledo Junior High's robot kept running into things and going in circles, but team programmer, Fidencio Gonzales, 13, promised to have the robot working better by Thursday.

“We might have hit the wrong buttons,” Fidencio explained.

Ottawa Hills had some bugs to work out too.

“I'm disappointed,” Mickey Swab said after his team's robot malfunctioned and didn't perform as hoped.

William Niehous, director of training and education at Edison Industrial Systems in Toledo, wasn't disappointed with the students' hard work. On the contrary, he beamed with pride as the students cheered and yelled as they watched the robots compete.

“This is great. They're having fun and learning,” said Mr. Niehous, who is the local coordinator for the event.

He said U.S. students have fallen far behind their counterparts in other countries when it comes to math and science. Events like this make math and science fun early on so “maybe when they get to high school, they'll take that chemistry or computer class.”

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