Building a better future with Lego Robotics
Rockland — Two seventh-grade boys set up a Lego robot and watch it roll slowly across a table. Nearby, another boy in their grade is using a laptop computer to program his own machine.
It is after 3 p.m. on a Friday, a time most seventh-graders would rather spend playing video games or catching up with friends, but these students are still hard at work in a classroom at Oceanside High School East in Rockland.
The members of the Rockland District Middle School Lego Robotics Team have been known to meet for hours after school and on weekends as they gear up for competitions across the state, according to teacher Janet Corcoran, who has been coordinating the after-school activity with co-coach Maddy Siletti and technical adviser Maynard Curtis.
"They decide everything," Corcoran says of the students. "I'm only here to make sure they don't destroy the building."
Through the program, about 10 middle school students practice building robots with special kits from toymaker Lego. In addition to the familiar interlocking, building blocks, the kits include a control device and motors.
Applying laws of physics, which they are required to learn, and concepts from engineering, they build robots to perform certain tasks. The robots have to walk, demonstrate their strength, shoot pingpong balls and perform other functions.
At "track meets" and competitions, the teams are put under pressure to build robots and complete tasks in timed events.
At a track meet in Ellsworth in May 2013, the team built a Lego bridge that held 200 pounds in metal weights without breaking. The team got second place for Strongest Robot and third place for both Walking Robot and Bridge Design.
At the December 2013 First Lego League competition they won the T-shirt design award.
"I like Legos," said Alex Mahar, a 13-year-old seventh-grader. "Normally, I just play with the bricks and build stuff, but this is robotics, and it's a new experience."
While Mahar and Ian Thumith are working on a rolling robot, classmate Matthew Young, 12, demonstrates the programming aspect on his laptop. As he explains the functions he can set his robot to do, he brings up pieces on his screen and rotates them. The students work from manuals and discover things via trial and error.
Luca Siletti, 13, is considering his robot's ambulatory issues. Last year, they built a walking robot with three legs, but it kept going around in circles, he lamented. This year, the walker will have four legs.
The kids get to use their creativity. They have named their robots Gandalf, Butternut and "The Strongest Robot."
The official name of the club is the RDMS Lego Robotics Team, but they compete as the Rockland RoboGeeks (the students picked the name and have designed matching T-shirts). The program was started by Anne Pietroski, who still helps when it comes to getting funding for the team. RSU 13 has, in the past, paid registration fees and for the three robots. Everything else, including t-shirts, snacks and extra Lego pieces, come from the team's families.
Even though this a middle school team, Oceanside High School East has welcomed the students to practice in its classroom, even on weekends.
Courier-Gazette Editor Daniel Dunkle can be reached at email@example.com or 594-4401 ext. 122.
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Daniel Dunkle is editor of The Courier-Gazette and news director for Courier Publications. He lives in Rockland with his wife, Christine, who also works for Courier Publications, and two children.
Dunkle has previously served as editor of The Republican Journal in Belfast. He has worked as a reporter and photographer in the Midcoast since 1998.