Students take part in robot competition at WWII museum

Advocate staff photo by ANDREA MABRY -- Zachary Harris, middle, and Kiary Lafayette, right, both fifth graders at Westdale Heights Academic Magnet School in Baton Rouge, watch as their team's robot maneuvers the robotics course at the World War II Museum Saturday.
Advocate staff photo by ANDREA MABRY -- Zachary Harris, middle, and Kiary Lafayette, right, both fifth graders at Westdale Heights Academic Magnet School in Baton Rouge, watch as their team's robot maneuvers the robotics course at the World War II Museum Saturday.

Competing for best robot, 28 teams of elementary students from across Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama battled their LEGO-brand bots in a series of contests on Saturday at the National World War II Museum.

It was the first time the museum held the event, which organizers said filled to capacity before the registration period ended.

“If they had something like this when I was in school I’d be all over it,” Brad O’Rourke said while watching his son, a sixth-grader from Woodlawn Middle School in Baton Rouge.

Since February, the teams of fourth- to eighth-grade students have been designing, building, and programming their robots while studying the WWII-themed obstacle courses on which they would compete.

Every robot had to be made with the same LEGO MINDSTORMS platform, which includes multiple motors and a programmable “brick.” Available sensory devices, which can detect everything from infrared to walls to color, were allowed to be incorporated into the design.

The autonomous robots were required to complete tasks in three-minute heats that involved moving objects from one location to another, without the use of remote controls. Robots used different strategies to transport tiny replica tires, tanks and other objects, by either picking them up or pushing them. The items included tin cans, plastic vegetables and Slinkies.

Beyond the fundamentals, there were not many rules for building the robots, head referee Jesse Hobson said. He also noted his skill in keeping the parents happy, calm, and assured that everything is fair.

Organizers said about 225 students participated. They said the competition could be expanded next year, based on the level of interest. The title of Grand Champion went to the “Warrior Robots” from St. Theresa of Avila School in Gonzales .

The event was largely run by high school volunteers.

Brandy Wilson, who graduated on Thursday from Slidell High School, said she was encouraged by a friend to join the robotics club. She said she “went in there and got the hands-on experience and fell in love.”

Asked if she feels the field is more geared toward boys, Wilson replied:“Absolutely not. We do so much stuff boys can do but we can do it better. We pay more attention to detail.”

The team at her school was about half boys and half girls, and included about 45 students, she said.

Wilson said she plans on becoming a mechanical or electrical engineer and wants to work in the field of harvesting energy from wind and lightning — a decision made after joining the club.

In addition to technical skills, the clubs and competitions teach problem solving, critical thinking, teamwork, and mathematics, Annie Tete, the museum’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math coordinator, said. There’s also the benefit of working on a long-term project in a real-world setting that reinforces skills, she said.

Kenneth Hoffman, the director of education for the museum, said the competition provides lessons in creativity, computer-programming, and committing to a goal. While the museum has had significant educational outreach in the realm of social studies, Hoffman said they’ve launched a STEM initiative during the past year.

“We are not trying to teach students 70-year-old science,” he said. “We use that time period of great innovation and invention as a jumping off point for teaching 21st century skills. A program like this does that perfectly.”

Hoffman said he was impressed with the level of programming the kids showed at the inaugural competition.

“We are all going to be working for these children in a few years,” Hoffman said.

“We all know the U.S. is lacking in qualified engineers and people with technical skills,” Tete said. “When you can get the fourth- through eighth-graders interested it carries on. After eighth grade, it’s harder to initiate engagement in high school.”

Hobson said he became involved in his school’s robotic club because he saw a weakness in schools regarding that divide between being a jock and a nerd — between being “cool” and being “dorky.” Hobson said it’s his goal to blend and blur the two.

“I’ve got a cheerleader who quit to join the robotics team. And one who plays football,” he said.

Hobson said it’s also important to give the “academic-types” more opportunities to be competitive.

Linda Denson, a seventh-grader at Benjamin Franklin Elementary Math and Science School, described the small, compact and maneuverable concept behind their robot named “Ally.” “We like to keep it simple,” she said.

Of why she likes being on the robotic club, Denson said “It’s really fun. I like challenging — and it’s really challenging.”