Sparta students take on robotics

| 15 Feb 2012 | 10:27

They're ready to show their stuff in state qualifying round SPARTA — FIRST LEGO League (FLL) is a worldwide robotics program to get students excited about science, engineering, and technology, while building self-confidence, knowledge, and valuable employment and life skills. A local chapter is now alive in Sparta. Sparta parent Ken Johnson formed the Sparta Robotics Club after being a volunteer with the Pope John program. “I mentored at Pope John for two years because my son Keith was very interested in doing something more challenging than just building Legos,” said Johnson. “Every time I mentioned PJ Robotics, people would ask how come the Sparta schools didn't have something like that for our middle school kids. That was really the driving force.” On Sept. 3, the FIRST Lego League unveiled to teams around the world the set of Robotics Challenges all based around this year's theme of “Food Factor” or food safety. Past themes have been nanotechnology, climate, and transportation. The teams then have three months to design, build and program their own robot, and complete a research project. Approximately 28 kids signed up immediately. This is double the amount of students compared to any other Northern New Jersey school. Plus, 25 are rookies. The fifth through eighth graders met every Monday and Wednesday after school and occasionally on weekends. They researched the development of food from planting and harvesting to processing and distribution. They created ways to improve its safe delivery through the use of Lego machinery. The FLL gave contamination problems and the teams had to create innovative solutions to help protect the food. They took field trips to local farms, grocery stores, and even McDonald’s. “The kids learn to work in teams, to problem solve, to apply basic mathematical and engineering concepts,” said Johnson. “They had two months to design and build their robots along with programming a brick engine [from laptops].” FLL gives a list of 15 tasks the robot must perform, such as harvesting corn and destroying bacteria, within a 2 and one-half minute timed mission. Each task is worth 3 to 15 points. November was spent accomplishing the tasks. A competition is held in December to determine which robot performs the tasks most efficiently. This year’s state qualifying tournament is being held on Saturday, December 3, in Lafayette. Johnson had his teams do several timed run-throughs this past week. The excitement of a finished product showed on the workers faces. However, not all tasks were successful, and disappointment ensued. “This can be so stressful for them,” said Sparta parent Nancy Purnell, who is also one of the team mentors. “Even a new battery could throw everything off.” The four teams with the highest score from the 15 tasks can qualify to advance to the next competition. But, according to Johnson, this is only part of the battle. Each team must give a 5-minute presentation to a panel of judges explaining their solutions. It can be a speech, skit or song. His team plans to also show hand-drawn posters depicting their thought processes. The FLL also wants the students to demonstrate their trademark “coopertition” or working as a team. They want to see the spirit of friendly competition and gracious professionalism. They want them to have fun. Johnson agrees and is proud of the Sparta team no matter what the results of the tournament. “This is a great opportunity for kids to compete against other schools in something other than sports. It may sound cliché, but it really doesn't matter if they win or lose.” One of the goals given by the FLL is that the students learn by doing all the work. Johnson told his team, “Your journey over the past two months is more important than the final outcome.” Johnson said he is grateful to Sparta Middle School Principal Doug Layman. “He was a very enthusiastic supporter as soon as he heard of this idea. Mike Bloodworth, the head of Pope John Robotics, was very helpful in getting us started.” Johnson also has three parent volunteers; Nancy Purnell, Inga Roggero, and Virginia Schwarzrock. “They took over the crucial role of team mentors.” The Sparta Robotics Club also got a great boost from a local sponsor, WaterMark Technologies. “That really helped us with the expenses involved in starting up a club like this,” Johnson said.