New competition gives middle school robotics programs a home venue

Dec 9, 2017

With robotics programs exploding in popularity across the South Coast, one thing was still missing: a venue for middle school students to compete locally.

The Southcoast Corsairs, a University of Massachusetts Dartmouth-based FIRST Robotics team with members from area high schools, filled that void with its first ever FIRST Lego League Challenge, held at the university on December 9.

The team invited students at 20 middle schools across southeastern Massachusetts to the tournament. In total, more than 450 students, families, and volunteers descended upon the university to compete.

“This is the first time this event has been held in southeastern Massachusetts,” said Candie Desjardins, an educational outreach program coordinator at the Naval Underwater Warfare Center in Newport. “One of [the South Coast Corsairs] initiatives is community outreach. The students wanted to start a young FIRST Robotics program.”

Previously, middle schools in the area had to travel to Worcester, the closest competition in the area.

“That’s not a real option for a lot of schools, especially those in economically disadvantaged areas," Desjardins said.

In the middle school robotics program, teams are given a new challenge every year, and must build robots out of Legos to complete certain objectives. This year’s challenge is called “Hydro Dynamics,” and is themed around human use of the water system.

Dartmouth Middle School’s newly formed Lego robotics team was one of the schools competing. Formed last year, it is headed by eighth grade team captain Jack Kertscher and seventh grader Evan Souza. They were both on the team last year, and provide leadership for their newer teammates.

Robots are designed to complete certain tasks, like activate a water treatment system, connect water wells, and collect rainwater. Each task is worth a certain number of points, so Kertscher and his team began early in the year with deciding on which tasks were the most important to complete.

After that, the team divided into separate groups. Using a base robot, each group came up with ways to solve individual tasks, and towards the beginning of the competitive season everything was combined into one robot.

But the hardest part for the young team was programming their robot.

“It’s definitely been the fine programming you have to do to get the robot to move just right,” Kertscher said.

Dartmouth Middle School teachers Adam Desjardins and Jamie Guile run the program at the middle school. As the competition approached, they were quite busy helping students perfect their designs. Guile noted the team took advantage of half-days and early release days to get extra time to perfect their designs.