Children’s toy the building block to their future

Looking something like a miniature plastic forklift, the LEGO robotic device moves across the tabletop map towards a row of trees.

Sensing the trees in front of it, the robot aims its claw as it drives forward to pick it up. Carrying the four trees, the robot crosses the map and deposits them near the river.

Standing at the side of the map, a puzzle created specifically for this year’s LEGO League challenge played by thousands of elementary students aged 9-14 around the world, are Virgil Elementary students Aaron Pozzebon and Connor Hill.

Though the robot is in their control, the two Grade 8 students are not carrying remote controls. All their control work has been done in the months leading up to Saturday’s regional qualifier held at the Niagara College cafeteria.

Except for the times when the robot comes back to the starting position when they pick it up to aim it in the direction of the next task, the robot acts completely on its own.

Aaron said he and his teammates developed the instructions for the puzzle on a computer and then fed them into the robot’s brain.

“We tell it to go forward, turn around and (direct) its arm movements,” he said. “It’s fun to build and program.”

(For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was founded by Dean Kamen, creator of the Segway, as a way to celebrate science and encourage children to think about designing and problem solving.

For older students, the competition involves building a more complicated full-size robot.

In previous years students at Governor Simcoe Secondary School in St. Catharines have excelled in this program at world competitions, and several of those students acted as referees Saturday.

For the LEGO league, puzzles are unveiled online in September and the students – about 100,000 in 38 counter – design programs for their robots to solve as many of the 15 individual missions in the 2 minute 30 second playing time.

Each year, there is a different theme, this year’s being energy and the environment. For part of the competition, each team must also compete a project, which involves selecting a building in their community and completing an energy audit.

The team at Virgil Elementary decided to pick one close to home; their own school. Ester King, the school’s secretary and team co-ordinator, said the students know all Niagara-on-the-Lake schools are being reviewed by the school board and decided to find the best way to move forward.

She said she liked how the presentation they developed had real-world relevance.

Dallas Ulley, one of the team members, said they looked at all options from renovating each school to tearing all of them down to build one super school. He said they found the best option to be to rebuild their school using energy-efficient materials.

Among the materials is aerogel, an insulation that is nearly 100 per cent air and is therefore extremely light.

“It’s one of the best insulators in the world,” he said.