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JMU Hosts Annual LEGO Robotics Competition

By: Jordan Pye
Posted: November 17, 2010

PHOTO: Lego judgesHundreds of aspiring scientists explore real-world technology challenges each fall through the FIRST LEGO League competition, hosted regionally by the JMU Colleges of Education and Integrated Science and Technology.

The program For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology began in 1989 with Dean L. Kamen, the New Hampshire entrepreneur who invented the Segway scooter, as a way to inspire student interest in science, engineering and technology. Today the program has a wide international reach and for the LEGO League alone, FIRST estimates that over 170,000 students from more than 50 countries will participate in the 2010-11 competition season. The competition is run through a partnership with the LEGO group and by involving children ages 9-14 in creative skill-building activities, FIRST also benefits businesses in the technology field.

"American industries have been complaining for a couple of decades now that there is a shortage of scientists and engineers," computer science professor Dr. Ralph Grove said. "[The program] is supported by a huge consortium of American industries like 3M, IBM and Boeing who realize the need to grow more engineers and scientists at home, so they're the people funding it all."

PHOTO: Students waiting to competeWhen Grove became involved with FLL in 2001, he saw potential for JMU to reach a new audience of students who might consider future majors and careers in science fields. He serves as director for the Nov. 6 regional tournament for the Shenandoah Valley area, which draws 15 to 20 teams of middle school students from Staunton to Page County and further north. The winners advance to the Virginia/Washington D.C. championship tournament, where over 100 teams will compete on Dec. 4-5 in JMU's Memorial Hall. The competition ends at the state level, but champion teams are invited to display their robots at an international exposition in the spring alongside students from Japan, Australia, Turkey and other countries.

Grove thinks hosting these events gives JMU has an early opportunity to attract prospective students, especially girls who could address the gender imbalance prevalent in science programs. The JMU student population studying computer science, for example, is 90 percent male.

"When girls are in middle school, according to research, they start to lose interest in science," Grove said. "[FLL] targets that age range, 9 to 14- year-olds, and they are evenly distributed gender-wise, so it helps them to understand that this is fun, you can be successful at it, it's not just for boys."

Each year FLL teams face two challenges: completing a research project related to the competition's theme, and constructing a robot that can perform simple "missions" at the tournament. This year the tournament theme is "Body Forward," so each team will choose a local, national or global issue related to biomedical engineering and then present an original solution. The children then design and build their own robot using LEGO MINDSTORMS technology kits, and program it to complete 12 LEGO tasks in the 4x8 ft. competition arena. These include mending a broken leg bone, inserting a pace maker into a heart and simulating the nerve connections that operate an electromechanical prosthetic hand. All tasks must be completed within two and a half minutes by the robot alone.

Grove estimates that a dozen JMU faculty members participate in FLL, either by working with teams or organizing resources and outreach, like him. Tournament staff is usually comprised of half faculty and community members, and half student volunteers from computer science, education, ISAT and other programs.

Senior communication studies majors Sara Pine and Kelly Dubbs initially became involved with FLL last year through a project in a human resource development class taught by Dominic Swayne, the head of the Military Science Department in the College of Education who is also director of the championship tournament. Each fall his HRD 245 class plans the tournament, and this year both students are returning to assist with the event's publicity.

"We are working with many companies from D.C., DC-Net, Booz Allen and Hamilton, SEI Investment Company, Rockwell Collins and many more to allow organizations to get involved," Dubbs said, adding that she and Pine will also attend the D.C. Smithsonian tournament on Nov. 13 as representatives of their local tournament.

While practicing public relations and drawing local media to the event, Pine observed that participating in FLL showed children they could support their community through teamwork.

"FLL provides the opportunity for kids to see ways to improve the world around them through thought, research, planning, and technology," Pine said, adding that she was impressed by team presentations she saw last year at a qualifying tournament at the Smithsonian. "The intellect that these kids have is so outstanding, and to see and hear them present their hard work and research that they put into the project was inspiring," Pine said.

Classmate Julia Oates served as a volunteer coordinator for the 2009 championship tournament and helped recruit almost 400 members of JMU faculty, ROTC, clubs, athletics, fraternities and sororities, and the Harrisonburg community to help prepare and staff the event. This semester she joined Pine and Dubbs to mentor organizers in the current HRD 245 class, which she enjoys because she can expose volunteers to the exciting environment of the competition

"It's memorable how enthusiastic the kids are - there are constant cheers, hugs, and high-fives when their robots successfully complete the course," Oates said. "They are all so smart; it is amazing to see these young kids program a LEGO robot to do things like go over or under bridges, pick up and throw an object or move a barrier."

Besides encouraging creativity and teambuilding, Grove thinks FLL reminds children that they can be capable scientists.

"I look at it as empowerment," Grove said. "We're trying to show kids that this is fun, you can do it, and it's an option you can consider for your educational and professional career."

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