Hot Springs kids get a leg up from Legos

LESLIE FISHER Contributing Writer Published August 5, 2010 at 2:25 a.m.
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— Thanks to a grant awarded Monday, a group of underserved children from Hot Springs will have the opportunity to compete in a state championship that takes playing with LEGOS to a whole new level.

The Arkansas FIRST LEGO League Championship Tournament, held annually in Mountain Home, introduces children ages 9-14 to “real-world engineering challenges.” Participants aren’t just snapping together plastic pieces, but building LEGO-based robots that are able to complete various tasks on a thematic playing surface.

“It gives them a vision for their future,” said Meredith Novak, the FLL operational partner for Arkansas. “It gives them a vision of what’s possible for them out there, and a goal and a dream.” Founded in 1989, FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is a nonprofit organization with a mission “to inspire young peopleto be science and technology leaders” through participation in various robotics programs, according to a statement by the organization.

With the FLL, teams of up to 10 children build and program robots, using LEGO MINDSTORMS technology. Prior to the tournament, the students are presented with a Challenge, based on a yearly theme, that includes a series of tasks their robot must be able to complete. Teams are also responsible for a research project that studies an aspect of the theme.

“They get to learn something about and meet with experts [in] a different field every year,” Novak said.

A team that she coached met Don Eigler, a physicist and IBM Fellow at IBM Almaden Research Center.

“They met this guy and sat down and talked to him,” she said, with a laugh. “Kids don’t usually get to meet world-famous scientists just like that.”

At the competition, teams are scored on their robots andtheir research presentation.

The cost for each team is approximately $700, which includes the price of the MINDSTORMS kit and the registration fee. After hearing about a team in Hot Springs that wasn’t able to raise the money to compete, Novak began working to secure the students a grant, which she presented to the team on Monday at the Quapaw Community Center.

“Science is my favorite subject, and now I get to learn more things about it,” said team member Deja King, who added that she was excited to be able to participate in the tournament this year.

The team is sponsored by the Webb Community Center and comprises students from various area schools. Last year the team, using a borrowed kit, competed in an off-season FLL tournament held at the Mid-America Science Museum.

The team’s adult coach, LaJean Burnett, is director of educational programs at the science museum, in addition to being a board member and volunteer at the Webb Community Center.

“This past year was the first time that this team actually participated in our tournament, and the concept was rather than them going up to Mountain Home with no experience of LEGO tournaments, it would give them some exposure to see what a tournament was like,” Burnett said. “That was the first time that they actually had participated in a robotics tournament, and they came out to the museum, and that sparked an interest for Meredith (Novak) to write a grant to sponsor them in the Mountain Home tournament.”

The theme of this year’s tournament is Body Forward. According to a release from the FLL, the “students will explore the cutting-edge world of biomedical engineering to discover innovative ways to repair injuries, overcome genetic predispositions and maximize the body’s potential, with the intended purpose of leading happier and healthier lives.”

Past themes have included space and conservation.

“One year it was on helping handicapped people,” Novak said. “They try to [make the themes] socially conscious and scientifically interesting at the same time.”

The 12th annual Arkansas FLL Championship Tournament, produced and hosted by the Science and Technology Group Inc., in partnership with Baxter Healthcare Inc., will be held Saturday, Dec. 4, at Mountain Home High School. Between 35 and 40 teams from across the state, and as far awayas Louisiana, are expected to compete in the event, though organizers hope to have even more teams compete.

Schools, civic organizations, community groups and neighborhoods are encouraged to form teams by registering onlineat gofll.usfirst.org.

The Body Forward challenge missions and information will be unveiled Friday, Sept. 3.

Teams compete for various awards, including the Robot Performance Award and the Champion’s Award.

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