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Robotics Design Challenge engages Missouri youth

Four students gather around a computer and discuss the particulars of their robot's performance.

Around 145 elementary and middle-schoolers from across Missouri came to Columbia for the 10th Annual Robotics Design Challenge, also known as the LEGO Challenge, which took place April 11 in the auditorium of MU’s Engineering Building West. Photos by Kelsi Anderson.

Teams of kids filled the classrooms, hallways and auditorium of Engineering Building West, all of them there with the robots they built and programmed from scratch. Some sat waiting patiently, while others ran their robots on their makeshift course while judges looked on.

One team intently watched as their robot navigated up the course, bumped into a wall and stalled. The kids groaned.

A pair of girls do some maintenance on their robot.

At the competition, the teams got the chance to test their robots on the challenge course. Objectives included navigating the obstacles of the course while passing over two checkpoints and stopping and staying in a “pause” area for five seconds. Points were also given for each sensor used to complete the course, creativity in design and implementation and directing the robot by playing a sound at the starting line or finish area.

“It’s OK,” said a man, their team leader. “Figure out the problem, fix it and try again.” The group dashed over to the team laptop to pore over their program.

Problem solving and communication were big aspects of the 10th Annual Robotics Design Challenge, also known as the LEGO Challenge, which took place April 11 in the auditorium of MU’s Engineering Building West. Around 145 elementary and middle-schoolers from across Missouri came to Columbia for the event.

Beforehand, teams were provided either LEGO Mindstorm RCX, LEGO NXT or LEGO EV3 kits containing all of the materials needed to build a basic robot. They also were given access to simplified LabVIEW software to program their robots to be controlled using rotation, light, touch and distance sensors.

The rest was left up to them.

“We came from just watching them play with LEGOs to building an actual robot,” said Lari Welch, a fifth grade teacher at Beuker Middle School in Marshall, Mo., who was with the Busy Beavers 4-H club. “This competition is big for them — it’s given them a reason to keep at it.”

At the competition, the teams got the chance to test their robots on the challenge course. Objectives included navigating the obstacles of the course while passing over two checkpoints and stopping and staying in a “pause” area for five seconds. Points were also given for each sensor used to complete the course, creativity in design and implementation and directing the robot by playing a sound at the starting line or finish area.

Teams had seven minutes to complete the course and were allowed to restart the course as many times as necessary within that timeframe, with their best run being recorded.

The second part of the challenge had teams meet with judges to discuss the challenge course, explain their design and thought process and discuss problems they encountered. They also enjoyed some snacks.

Satish Nair, a professor in the electrical and Electrical and Computer Engineering and Bioengineering Departments at the University of Missouri, started the Robotics Design Challenge 10 years ago along with others. The goal of the LEGO Challenge, he said, is to introduce engineering and math to kids before they become scared of it.

Nair brought up a conversation he had with a parent that he thought perfectly illuminated why the program is so important. “She said ‘my girls are so thrilled,’ but the way she put it is that ‘my son was already into it,’” said Nair. “One of the objectives for this challenge is to reach kids before they make up their mind that math is not for girls and science is not for girls. I want to make that impact.”

Nair said children make up their minds on math as early as elementary school.

“Somewhere along the line I think kids, boys and girls, make the decision that math is not for them,” Nair said. “We’d like to dispel that myth.” The trick, he said, is introducing math in a fun, accessible way.

“It [the Robotics Design Challenge] flexes different muscles than taking a test would,” said Chris Blasius, a senior engineering student at MU, who became interested in the LEGO challenge his junior year when he took a class with Nair and decided to become a mentor.

He thinks many kids become disengaged with math when their only exposure to it is memorizing equations and filling in multiple-choice questions. “For a lot of kids, it never really comes alive for them until they get into these robotics programs and see that math and science really does help in a real-world way,” he said.

Blasius said the key lesson the competition tries to teach is the value of persistence and communication. “The first time they try to navigate the course, there’s no way they’re gonna get it right,” he said. “So we try to show them that you’re not gonna get it right the first time, but eventually you will.”

Winning wasn’t the main goal of the competition, Nair said. As he spoke to the packed auditorium, he told the kids that just through competing in the competition and being open to learning, they were winners.

Everyone received an award for competing, though special awards also were given for categories such as most or least code used and best teamwork.

“It’s a challenge,” said Blasius of the competition, “but more than that, it’s a celebration of the work they’ve done for an entire school year.”