La Jolla Elementary team engineers success in robotics competition

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Members of La Jolla Elementary School’s three robotics teams: The Hairy Eyeballs are Ella Hagey, Tabitha Hibbs and Ariana Didomenico; Da People are Vito Anastasi, Alex West and Connor Reynoso Spurrier; The Blank Paper are Keegan Leonard, Ollie Mendel and Kristofer Backlund. Courtesy

By Catherine Ivey Lee

Three teams from La Jolla Elementary School prepared all fall for their first robotics competition. At the recent event at High Tech High, the young engineers presented to judges, maneuvered robots and made emergency fixes on the fly. What the rookie teams weren’t prepared for, however, was for one of them to take home a first-place trophy in one of the event’s main categories.

“It was the very last award announced,” said Keegan Leonard, 11, a member of the winning team, Blank Paper. Leonard recalled that a loud plane overhead had caused a momentary delay in the award’s announcement. “And then, ‘The winner is team Blank Paper!’ ” Keegan said. “Our parents were right behind us, screaming.”

For good reason. Not only was this LJES’s first foray into competitive robotics but its team members are also at the younger end of the competition’s 9- to 14-year-old age range, explained the team’s coach, Joan Boyle.

“This was our first year and we didn’t expect to get anything,” Boyle said. “We’re so proud of their achievements. They worked so hard — every one of them.”

It was only last winter that Boyle started LJES’s robotics program as an after-school class. A third grade teacher with no formal background in science, the enthusiastic Boyle wanted students to have a chance to explore robots in a hands-on way.

She also hoped the class might stoke girls’ interests in math and science. A generous parent, who wanted his daughter involved, donated funds for six LEGO Mindstorms, robots students can build and program using software on a laptop.

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Kristofer Backlund, Ollie Mendel and Keegan Leonard show off their Lego Mindstorms robot. The team recently won the project category of a robotics tournament for their novel solution to extinguish wildfires.

This fall more than 30 students enrolled in her after-school program and Boyle decided to enter three teams of “seasoned” programmers into the First LEGO League, or FLL, tournament at High Tech High. The teams included Blank Paper and Da People, both comprised of fifth-graders, as well as the Hairy Eyeballs, an all-girls team of fourth-graders supported by a grant to encourage girls in science that Boyle was awarded from the San Diego Chapter of the International Council on Systems Engineering.

Under guidance from Boyle and with support from two parents, Bill Hagey and Bjorn Backlund, the budding engineers met weekly this fall — sometimes more — to prepare for FLL. The elaborate competition has three categories, each related to this year’s theme of natural disasters: a robotics challenge, in which students navigate their robots across a disaster zone and complete tasks such as raising buildings to higher ground and moving people to safety; a project, in which teams develop a novel solution aimed at thwarted a real disaster; and “core values,” in which teams show mastery of skills such as teamwork and cooperation.

It was Blank Paper’s innovative solution to the very real disaster of wildfires that received high marks from the judges. The group, which also included 11 year olds Ollie Mendel and Kristofer Backlund, proposed dropping an enormous, lightweight blanket of fire-resistant material from a helicopter to extinguish smaller wildfires.

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