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Through Robots, Youngsters Find Solutions For A Challenging World

Annual FIRST LEGO® League Robotics Tournaments challenge young students to solve problems through engineering

When young minds are challenged with developing engineering solutions to difficult tasks, interesting innovations will arise. And what better way to encourage creative problem solving than with a ubiquitous childhood toy – LEGOs!

At last year’s 2012 FIRST LEGO® League Robotics Tournament – a competition in which teams of students ages 9 to 14, from across Rhode Island and nearby Massachusetts, design, build and program a robot that completes game challenges – one such innovation was born. As many teams struggled to have their robot successfully deliver a tray of “food” (actually, LEGO® pieces) to a dinner table, one team realized it was best accomplished with the food tray turned upside down, says Matthew R. Stein, professor of engineering at Roger Williams University and faculty coordinator and emcee of the annual competition.

It’s this kind of thinking “outside the box” that the young teams cultivate when developing clever strategies for completing the missions in a FIRST LEGO® League Robotics Tournament – and is at the heart of engineering design, says Stein.

“Sure, we naturally think that you deliver food right side up so it doesn’t spill, but there was no specific rule requiring it to be right side up,” Stein says. “Kudos to them for thinking of it.”

FIRST LEGO® League is an international competition for elementary and middle school children featuring an annual real-world challenge that engages them in authentic scientific research and hands-on robotics design using LEGO MINDSTORMS® technologies and play materials. Roger Williams University has hosted the annual Rhode Island FIRST LEGO® League Championship Tournament on its campus since 2006. Teams vie for awards in categories such as Robot Design, Robot Strategy, Research Quality, and Teamwork. The team that wins the Champion’s Award advances to the national competition, and each team member receives a four-year RWU scholarship of $5,000 per year.

Each year a different challenge is presented to the teams. Last year’s “Food Factor” challenge explored how food gets to plates safely and ready to eat, and where along the supply chain food might be contaminated. In addition to the points-based robotics competition, teams must identify and research a related issue and develop a solution to prevent or address the problem.

This year’s “Senior Solutions” competition on Saturday, Jan. 12 at RWU challenges the teams to improve the quality of life for seniors by devising engineering solutions that help seniors continue to be independent, engaged, and connected in their communities. The challenge for the youngsters on these teams is to empathize with senior citizens who are coping with diminished mobility and physical ability – then create solutions that, for example, make it possible for the senior to reach elevated objects, open a medicine bottle, cross a threshold or climb steps, and even tend to gardens and keep up their bowling games.

Nearly 300 students are expected to compete in this Saturday’s tournament. Wrapped up as an exciting robotics experiment, the competition is an excellent vehicle for introducing young students to engineering, Stein says:

“The competition is an immersion into the world of engineering design. I often say, ‘If physicians heal and artists create, engineers design.’ Engineering design is different from science, as science is the search for better understanding of the truth about the natural world. In design there is no underlying truth that we are trying to discover, rather we are trying to devise the best solution to the problem at hand. Coming away from this competition with an understanding of what engineering is, and how it is distinct from other disciplines is the primary benefit of the competition.”