Glidden-Ralston students Kimberly Daily, Mason Janssen and Cody Klocke work with a robot entry in the LEGO League. Two teams from the school had placewinners in robot design at a December competition.
Glidden-Ralston students Kimberly Daily, Mason Janssen and Cody Klocke work with a robot entry in the LEGO League. Two teams from the school had placewinners in robot design at a December competition.
January 24, 2014


Once again, middle school teachers and the LEGO Group are teaming up to show students that it is cool to be a computer geek.

Julie Leonard, Glidden-Ralston gifted and talented, consumer sciences, and guidance teacher, introduced her students to the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology LEGO League seven years ago. At their latest competition in Oceola in December, the sixth-grade boys' team, Sharknados, and the combined boys and girls fourth- through eighth-grade team, Hydro Overflow, took first and second places, respectively, for robot design.

The process begins with a "brick," a roughly 3-by-4-inch Lego box containing a small computer, explained Austin Snyder, sixth-grade participant.

Next, the students choose the number of wheels - two to four - and test the results with big wheels versus small wheels, or tracks versus treads, explained Leonard.

They can also add sensors, explained Kimberly Daily, fifth-grade member of the Hydro Overflow team. Her team's robot included a touch sensor, which tells the robot to stop when it pushes up against a solid object; a light sensor, which enables the robot to follow lines based on the differences in lightness and darkness on the board below it; and a color sensor, which adjusts the robot's movements based on the colors it registers on the board beneath it.

The students' goal is to program their robot to complete a series of missions. They have a time limit of two minutes and 30 seconds - the more actions completed in that time, the more points earned by the team.

The theme of the fall competition was "Nature's Fury," so the game board and the tasks were designed to emulate actions taken during natural-disaster relief to encourage students to explore how technology could contribute to solutions. Tasks included clearing a runway, assisting with a plan landing, delivering water and supplies and evacuating people and animals.

The students are able to build attachments to work with their robot, but they must be designed to remove quickly so as not to lose valuable seconds, said Leonard. The programmers can also set the robot to complete multiple tasks at once before "returning to base," Daily explained, setting up her robot for a demonstration.

The board is designed to exact specifications, allowing the students to calculate the distances from the robot's home base to each specific piece. The students then program the robot by calculating the number of wheel rotations needed to reach an object, the direction the robot should travel, and the number of degrees it needs to turn to avoid various obstacles.

"Programming is just logical thinking," explained Jim Wittry, who volunteers with the teams. "It's charting progress step-by-step."

Cited by Leonard as a "vital" volunteer, Wittry is a self-described "computer geek." He is a network designer for Principal Financial in Des Moines. He began helping with the robotics club four years ago when one of his own children got involved.

"It's a natural fit for me to help," he said, adding that he will probably continue even when his own children grow too old to be involved in the program. "I enjoy it. And there really aren't a lot of programming folks around."

Wittry said that it can be challenging to keep eight to 10 elementary and middle-school students engaged while only one student at a time can work on programming. Though he shows them how to program or build something when asked, he said most of the ideas are their own.

"It depends on the year," he said, explaining that he encourages students to start building their robots using one of the basic designs included in the Lego Mindstorms kits.

"Some years they're more creative and want to do their own thing," he said. "Whether it works as well or not doesn't matter - it's theirs."

Wittry also helps Leonard coach a summer robotics camp, where students can learn the basics of programming, including constructs, loops and how to use motors and sensors, all through the tools provided in the Lego robotics sets. He said it is easiest to see the growth in students who participate for several years in a row. The older students begin to take on more programming decision-making responsibilities.

The FIRST LEGO League is open to students ages 9 to 14. It also includes a research component related to the theme. For their research portion, one of the Glidden-Ralston teams reviewed the town's disaster-relief plan, recommending that people gather at the school in the aftermath of a tornado.

The next level of the FIRST LEGO programs is First Tech Challenge, open to students in seventh through 12th grades. Designed for older students who do not have the interest in the research project, FTC is all about programming.

The robots are bigger and badder, built with tetrics, a combination metal materials instead of smaller plastic Lego bricks, explained FTC team member Jason Bagley. The mat is 12-feet-square, and four teams face off from each corner. But the four teams do not all battle each other - the competition adds the element of alliance.

When team's reach the competition, they have to work together with a team they have never met in order to defeat the two teams facing them across the mat.

This year's theme was "Block Party." The teams had two minutes and 30 seconds for their robots to complete programmed tasks, one minute and 30 seconds to remotely control their robot, and an optional 30-second "endgame."

This season was the second year Glidden-Ralston had an FTC team, and Jason Bagley's first year as a member.

One of the tasks for this year's competition was to pick and place blocks on a pendulum, meaning the teams had to work together to keep the pendulum balanced throughout the exercise. Bagley and his team achieved this by designing a robot with two wheels close together on the robot arm, enabling it to spin the wheels in to roll in a block and pick it up, then reversing the wheel spin to spit the wheel back out.

Teams get six attempts, and the totals of each attempt are combined after the final try to give the alliance a final score. At the end of the competition, the top four teams get to select their alliance teams. The two winning alliances then move on to state.

"There is a massive draft at the end," Bagley explained. "You want to perform well throughout the day and also make good relationships."

Some teams have enough members that individuals can be sent to meet and scout potential alliances, explained Leonard. GR didn't have these numbers, but they were still able to make an impression when they gave fuses to another team who had burnt their own. In exchange, that team shared a way to complete the endgame.

The FTC team was unable to practice on a full mat before the competition, but Leonard hopes to remove extra sinks from the middle of her classroom in order to accommodate the full mat next year. Bagley also hopes to add a Plexiglas casing - the metal parts of the larger robots can do unintentional damage if they get too close to each other without some sort of barrier.

According to Leonard, more than 400 teams participated in FLL during the fall semester, while 160 teams participated in FTC.

The FTC equipment is also more expensive, said Leonard. Glidden-Ralston has received grants and sponsorships from FIRST LEGO, Rockwell City Collins, Raccoon Electrical Cooperative, the booster club and the Masonic Lodge.

Wittry said programming is an important skill in today's economy - even the use of an Excel spreadsheet involves basic tenets of programming, and few professions don't involve computers at some level.

"It's a way for kids to get a little experience," he said. "Hopefully it will pique their interest to go into the field in some way."