Middle schoolers use Legos to build robots and team spirit

Dec 8, 2018

The Science and Engineering building at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth was teeming with young engineers during the FIRST Lego League Qualifier competition on Dec. 8.

Teams from 29 middle schools throughout Massachusetts gathered with robots built out of Legos to compete in various challenges. This year's challenge, called Into Orbit, is astronaut-themed and required each team to build robots designed to complete a range of space exploration tasks like collecting mock "core samples."

Members of Dartmouth Middle School Team 27451, also known as “Empire Strikes Brick,” said that although they had had some trouble with the competition, they were enjoying seeing what other teams were up to.

“You get to see what other people have for attachments, or what they can do,” said Evan Souza.

Teammates discovered that due to some slight differences between the middle school classroom and the competition course, what had worked in the classroom was not as successful at the competition. Tools such as light sensors had to be disabled, as lighting differences between the venues could have made the programs useless.

Evan Moniz said younger kids should try robotics out in middle school. What seems complicated at first becomes fun and engaging over time.

The competition was hosted by FIRST Robotics Competition Team 5846, made up of teens from six area high schools, and mentored by UMass Dartmouth students.

Mike Johnson, a UMass Dartmouth student mentor, said the team was inspired to host a meet because there are few in the South Coast. A highlight of the event is seeing how the young students on different teams design their robots, which are often sophisticated.

“There’s one team here that how they designed their robot blew me away,” Johnson said.

One team was even using pneumatics — something the college students did not realize was possible to do with Legos.

High school and college students staffed, ran, and refereed most of the events. Keira Ahern, a freshman at UMass Dartmouth who participated in FIRST robotics in high school, said she values the community spirit of the events.

”I really love FIRST,” Ahern said. “They focus on cooperation and gracious professionalism.”

At these competitions, it is not unusual to see teams helping each other out. Students frequently explain a program, lend spare parts, and work through problems together.

The team from the Our Sisters School, including Savannah Lopes of Dartmouth, focused not only on robotics but on building team and community spirit. Teammates celebrated mistakes, which are how students learn.

“It’s worth knowing STEAM [science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics] skills because you never know when you’re going to need it,” said Lopes.

The girls said they were also interested in participating in STEAM classes and activities to pave the way for younger girls, because women are still very underrepresented in STEAM classes and careers.

The Our Sisters team reached the finals of the competition.