La Jolla Elementary team engineers success in robotics competition

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.

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.

“It would be made out of the same material that firefighter’s outfits are made out of,” explained Backlund of Blank Paper’s idea. “Not only would it smother it but the oxygen would be sucked out and it would slowly start putting itself out,” Mendel added.

In researching the idea, the boys received feedback from local firefighters. Team Da People also investigated wildfires, proposing a sensor that could detect materials such as leaves and wood just before they combust. The Hairy Eyeballs proposed a sensor to detect tsunamis before they hit.

After coming in first place out of 24 teams in the project category, Blank Paper will advance to a regional championship at LEGOLAND in December, FLL organizer David Berggren said.

And while they didn’t go home with trophies, LJES’s other two teams clearly considered their involvement a success, too.

“All three of us had a lot of fun,” said Ariana Didomenico of her team, Hairy Eyeballs, as she and her teammates began to take their robot apart to rebuild it. The group said it was motivated to do better at LEGOLAND this winter.