Tiny Tinkerers: La Jolla club places in competition


Three years ago, a group of third grade La Jolla Elementary School students got to go on a daytrip to Legoland with their teacher Joan Boyle. In the midst of all the fun, Boyle said, the students noticed that the First Lego League Robotics Competition was underway, and stopped to watch. For the competition, young engineers must build a robot and program it to complete specific challenges on a gameboard, and secondarily, complete a project that relates to each year’s competition theme.

Fascinated and inspired, the students wanted to start a Lego-based robotics club of their own. So Boyle applied for a materials grant, and the La Jolla Elementary School Robotics Club formed with 10 enthusiastic students, and has come a long way since. There are now 22 third- fourth- and fifth-grade students that make up five teams within the after-school club.

In December 2015, two teams participated — and placed — in the very competition that inspired them to start a club in the first place. Boyle boasted, “The kids are so dedicated and they did an outstanding job.”

At the Dec. 5 SoCal Championship of the First Lego League Robotics Competition at Legoland, the theme was reducing trash, and La Jolla Elementary School’s team T.R.A.S.H. won second place for its robot design and team B.L.A.M. received the Judges Award for its composting project.

Sarah Kaplan, 11, has been on the robotics team for all three years, and was on team T.R.A.S.H. this year. “I really liked watching the robot actually work after all the time we spent programming it and the process,” she said.

For the team’s entry, they built a basic robot with a versatile attachment that self-adjusts to meet different challenges. Contrarily, other teams would build different attachments to be installed based on gameboard challenges. But team T.R.A.S.H. made one robot that could do it all.

“I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy robotics and programming, but my teacher Ms. Boyle and a friend on the team motivated me to stick with it. Now I like it a lot,” Sarah said.

For the project aspect of the competition that does not require a robot, “Team B.L.A.M. made a composting (program) for teachers at the school, and decided to use it for the competition. They showed the judges how their project works and how it reduced trash at school,” Boyle said.

Michael Khamishon, 10, was on Team B.L.A.M. and helped put the project together. “It was a lot more challenging than I thought, but also a lot of fun,” he said. “For our composting project, we got composting bins and created songs to teach the kindergarteners and first-graders how to use them. For the older kids, we gave them the diary of a worm to show how composting works. Some of the classrooms already have them and use them.”

Throughout the year, the club meets two days a week after school, but more frequently as competition season nears. During club meetings, the students develop robots with Mindstorms technology, which uses specialty Lego material to build the robot and an app on a tablet to program it. The young programmers use the app to decide what the robot will do, and Bluetooth technology transmits the directions to the robot. The students are able to experiment with different actions, such as walking, grabbing, and speaking, and in what order.

For Michael, the trial-and-error aspect is the most fun. “Sometimes it’s funny when you fail, because you program the robot to do something specific and it does a completely different thing. Or sometimes you program it wrong and its funny to see how wrong it went. But the best part is when you get past that and fix the problem and find a solution,” he said.

After fine-tuning their robots and deciding what they’d like them to do, the students designed, built and programmed a robot for the competition. For Annie Peppers, 11, the experience of presenting before the judges was exhilarating. “It was so much fun, but it was challenging at first,” she said. “But that’s what made me want to do it, I wanted to work through that challenge. You have to work really hard to make a robot that can perform tasks in front of judges.”

But she noted that she was prepared for the competition by watching some of the older students (Annie joined the club in third grade and is now in fifth grade). In addition to the older students helping the younger ones, there is some parent help as well. “This year, one of the parents is a programmer and he volunteers with us, so he was named the assistant coach. We also have a high school student from the La Jolla High School robotics team and an engineer helping us out,” Boyle said.

With mentorship readily available, the school is developing a “newbie” group of second-graders that will work on building a robot, but not programming it. There are 28 students signed up for this group. The students in the newbie group could “graduate” to the team level.

In both levels, Boyle said, the students learn the program’s core values of teamwork, cooperation and professionalism. “We teach children to support each other and pat each other on the back,” she said. “They learn to value each others’ work, and when they don’t win, they congratulate the students who did. As a teacher, seeing the respect they develop for each other is amazing.”

And it’s already worked for Michael. “By being on this team, I’ve learned it’s harder to overcome a problem by yourself. If you have a team, different ideas come together and that usually fixes the problem,” he said.

Sarah added she sees other benefits for the future. “It’s great for kids to learn how to program because there are programming jobs out there and a lot of people don’t know how to code or program; it could create opportunities for us in the future.”