Robotics students code and solve, one Lego at a time

For hundreds of area pupils who have been spending evenings and weekends in meetings, hovering over Legos and laptops, Saturday was the big test.

“Nobody has the wheels we have,” boasted Marcus Richardson, a seventh-grader at Benjamin Banneker Charter Academy of Technology. “When we program the robot to turn, it’s very precise.”

About 20 Banneker kids and 40 squads of robotics students from other schools filled Union Station for the First Lego League Regional Championship.

Note: These are not your brother’s Legos.

They are smart vehicles gliding on game tables, programmed by laptops to know where to go and when to stop, pivot and reach out to lift things.

Doing all that requires students to learn computer coding and get their math down. The circumference of the wheels, after all, factors into the distance robots are programmed to travel.

Like most of the teams, the “Banneker Bobcaticians” have been gathering to perfect their skills on weekdays after school, three or four hours on Saturdays, even through Christmas break.

“It’s really not about the robot,” said their robotics teacher, William Wells. “It’s about learning cooperation, respect and developing the soft skills you need to be a 21st-century worker.”

He added: “Almost all of our kids are at or below poverty levels. They’ve overcome a lot of challenges.”

The First Lego League program — a national initiative to connect young minds to science and technology — has been sponsored the last four years in Kansas City by Time Warner Cable. The KC STEM Alliance co-hosted Saturday’s competition, which presented contests that encouraged pupils to think about ways to help the elderly. The championship prize went to a group of home-schooled students, Rock’n Robo Rabbits.

As part of the robotics program at Trailridge Elementary School in Lee’s Summit, the Timberbots team is making visits to John Knox Village, where pupils impart their high-tech knowhow on residents.

“The kids know a lot more about programming (the robots) than I know,” said fifth-grade math teacher and Timberbots coach Jayne Hartwig. “That’s what I love about this. They come up with their own solutions.”

One of the more vexing tests at Union Station was getting the robots to navigate the wobbly “Transition Bridge,” an exercise stressing the importance of proper balance.

Those vehicles whose pre-programmed coordinates weren’t exact were doomed to tip over the ramp.

And they kept tipping — until a pair of Timberbots placed on the table a robot named Old Cyborg Joe.

The crowd erupted when Joe crept forward, turned left and, with seconds running out, stopped successfully atop the bridge.

“That’s 65 points,” shouted Hartwig’s husband, Michael, who volunteered to be among the tournament’s referees (all of whom donned striped shirts and toted clipboards).

Sixth-grader C.J. Paden, who programmed Old Cyborg Joe, took his teammates’ slaps on the back in stride.

“I had no idea it would work,” he said.

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