Homer students to compete in state robotics championship

As part of the competition, the middle-schoolers program their Lego robot to perform a series of missions on a tabletop arena.
(Photo courtesy of Marj Dunn)

This winter, a group of middle schoolers at West Homer Elementary are putting aside hockey sticks and skis in favor of a more unusual team sport: building robots.

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The group of 10 sixth graders calls themselves the “Brickheads.” They competed against more than 20 teams from across the state at the First Lego League Robotics State Qualifiers in December, winning an award for Best Overall Team. Now they’ve set their sights on an even bigger prize: the Alaska State Championship.

The team has been building and programming their Lego robot since October.

It’s about the size of a loaf of bread, with small wheels and movable arms. As part of the competition, the robot has less than three minutes to complete a series of missions on a tabletop arena.

One of the missions involves collecting Lego “milk” from a cow. The students program the robot to push a lever and dispense the milk. Push the lever too far and the cow drops a load of Lego “manure” instead. The key is to teach the robot where exactly to move.

“I had to use a color sensor which measures reflective light off a certain color and that’s how to make it follow that black line that circles the cow,” team-member Alexander Moore said.

But programming is only one part of the competition. Judges also evaluate how well the team works together.

Over the last few months, the Brickheads have had some tense moments. Team-member Cecilia Fitzpatrick said they had to come up with a creative way to communicate with each other.

“It’s hard to talk when you’re talking over each other. We were getting a little irritated, so we invented a talking tiki,” Fitzpatrick said.

The West Homer Elementary Brickheads pose with their “talking tiki.” (Photo courtesy of Marj Dunn)

It’s a pretty simple system. The rule is whoever is holding the little wooden statue is the one who is allowed to talk.

Brickheads coach Marj Dunn said the middle-schoolers are not only learning how to work as team, they’re also becoming more socially aware.

“They’ve learned a lot about how to phrase things to sound more gracious and supportive,” Dunn said. “That’s not usually something kids at this age have mastered. There’s a lot of learning going on, but it’s not just the technical skills. It’s also the personal, social and emotional learning that is of utmost importance.”

This is Dunn’s first year coaching the team. She said the students have taken complete ownership of the process.

“They’re the ones reading the manual, they’re the ones figuring things out, they’re the ones making a plan for success,” Dunn said.

The team is now feverishly preparing for the Alaska State Championship, which is scheduled for Jan. 14 at South Anchorage High School.

Shahla Farzan is a reporter with KBBI - Homer.

Shahla first caught the radio bug as a world music host for WMHC, the oldest college radio station operated exclusively by women. Before coming to KBBI, she worked at Capital Public Radio in Sacramento and as a science writer for the California Environmental Legacy Project. She is currently completing her Ph.D in ecology at the University of California-Davis, where she studies native bees.

When she's not producing audio stories, you can find Shahla beachcombing or buried in a good book.

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