The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

November 26, 2012

Robot team qualifies for state tourney

By Kim West
kwest@athensnews-courier.com

— Five students from Brookhill Elementary School and Athens Intermediate School will spend part of the Christmas break fine-tuning their presentation and engineering skills after the Athens Robot Team, known as ART, earned top three recognition in two categories among 27 teams vying for berths in the Alabama FIRST Lego League (FLL) state tournament.

The rookie robotics quintet competed in the FLL state qualifier hosted by Discovery Middle School Nov. 10 against teams with a maximum of 10 students ages 9-14. They advanced to the state championship at Grissom High School Jan. 12 by finishing in the top 13 overall, earning second place in robot performance and third in the research project division.

ART is comprised of third-grader Adam Biggs and fourth-graders Drew Grose, Jake Collins and Grant Metcalfe, all 9-year-old students at Brookhill, and 11-year-old Benjamin Carlota, a sixth-grader at Athens Intermediate.

The team is coached by two of the team members’ fathers, engineers Andy Grose and Jeff Biggs. They typically lead practices on Sunday afternoons at the Robotics Technology Park on the campus of Calhoun Community College.

“We have weekly meetings when the robot is programmed on the computer, and the kids learn to write programs for the robot,” Grose said. “We’ll be competing against all the best teams from around the state, and there will be at least 50 teams. At the state tournament, we’ll use the same robot and project, and we’ll present the same material we used at the state qualifier.”

Grose is employed by Amtec Corporation, which allows the team to use its Decatur office to prepare for FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) tournaments.

Amtec, which is owned by an Athens family, and Huntsville-based Pathfinder Chapter of Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International have donated funds to help purchase equipment and pay for registration fees.

Real world application

FLL, which promotes teamwork, sportsmanship and creativity, requires teams to focus on a real-world, scientific topic, and this year’s theme was “Senior Solutions.”

Each team is given a Lego Mindstorm kit, which includes NXT G, a kid-friendly version of Labview, the professional-grade computer programming language. The software is used to program robots to maneuver on an 8-foot-by-4-foot Lego playing field and execute tasks.

For the research project, teams created app concepts to assist senior citizens. ART designed MedPro, an app that can be fully integrated with medical offices to help seniors remember their medicine protocols.

“For our research project, the kids designed an app for the iPad to help seniors remember to take their medicine, and it included an audio and visual reminder and electronic pill box,” Grose said. “Because it was an elementary-level competition, the kids didn’t build an actual app — we had the kids hand-draw and color an app user interface on pieces of paper of what the app would like, and then they converted it to a PDF file, which allowed the judges to scroll through it on their iPad screens during the competition.”

State winners will advance to the FIRST World Championship against international competition April 25-28 at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, Mo.

“Since we did well during the robot portion of the competition, our overall strategy for state will include improving on the judging session of the competition,” Grose said. “Being a rookie team, we weren’t expecting to do well at the state qualifier, so we were excited to advance.

“We would love to go to nationals, but we’re just going to take it one step at a time.”

The purpose of FLL is to inspire students to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers. Students have the opportunity to compete at the lower and upper levels in elementary school, and in a tech challenge and robotics competition in high school.

The real-world skills are just as important as winning the pair of regional trophies, according to Grose.

“It’s a really good program because it teaches kids to think like engineers and how to program the robot,” he said. “Plus, they’re learning valuable job skills and public speaking, and they’re learning how to answer questions about their design and project, which allows the judges to find out if the kids did the work.”