Nearly 150 local children divvied into 18 teams competed in a challenge to conduct research about biomedical engineering and program a LEGO MINDSTORMS robot while exploring how engineering mixes with traditional biological and medical sciences to advance healthcare.
FIRST is a national nonprofit organization founded by inventor Dean Kamen to “turn young people on” to career opportunities in science, math, technology and engineering. FIRST programs include FIRST LEGO League (FLL), Junior FIRST LEGO League (Jr.FLL), FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) and FIRST Robotics Competition.
Space Science for Schools, a Nevada-based nonprofit organization dedicated to education and public outreach, FIRST NV, a nonprofit group run by volunteers that works to bring FIRST programs to Nevada, Sparks High School, Coral Academy of Science and the City of Sparks collaborated to make Saturday’s event possible.
Each year, FLL and Jr.FLL participants are given a different challenge. This year, the “Body Forward Challenge” called for teams of children ages 9 to 14 to formulate and present their own solutions to improving quality of life.
“FLL challenges kids to think like scientists and engineers,” said Dee Frewert, tournament director. “In the Body Forward Challenge, FLL teams explore the cutting-edge world of biomedical engineering to discover innovative ways to repair injuries, overcome genetic predispositions and maximize the body’s potential.”
Teams built LEGO MINDSTORMS robots and programmed them to complete a number of missions including rapid blood screening, widening an artery by inserting a stint, applying a cardiac patch to a heart, getting a mechanical hand to hold a patent, dispensing medication, destroying bad cells and repairing bones. Each mission was completed using LEGOs.
Awards were given in several categories and judging was based on mechanical design, programming, innovation and strategy, robot performance, presentation, innovative solution, research, inspiration, teamwork and gracious professionalism.
“The big thing is FIRST promotes gracious professionalism,” Frewert said. “It inspires behavior desired in adult life. The judges notice a behavior in kids that would make a grandmother proud.”
Frewert said teams are encouraged to help one another in various ways, such as lending parts of a kit to a team who has a broken robot part. She calls it “coopetition.”
The challenge, Frewert said, takes the thrill of competition, applies it to academics and combines the two with core values and gracious professionalism.
“Kids are lured by robotics,” she said, and this is a chance for children who might not be involved in sports to compete on a “game field.”
“Parents are encouraged to participate,” Frewert said, adding some of the parents who volunteered to coach appeared more nervous than the children prior to the tournament.
One such parent coach was Patti Poston of Virginia City, who watched Saturday morning as her daughter Jamie, 14, fine-tuned her robot during a practice run.
“I’m just hoping she can get it through the corner, and nothing else matters,” Poston said as she watched the robot maneuver through the competition course.
Poston said the team “FLLy Loaded 5074,” which is composed of students from Virginia City, Red Rock, Reno, Truckee and Carson City, began practicing in September.
“It’s been difficult,” Poston said, to get everyone together, especially during some of the winter storms.
“When it was snowing, they used Skype to talk to each other and build the robot,” Poston said.
The youngest team member, Adelaide Crow, 9, said she has learned a lot about the human body and how robots work.
“I’ve learned a lot about how the brain works,” Crow, who is a home school student, said.
Though most teams began preparing for Saturday’s tournament several months ago, one team decided to join at the last minute to gain experience for next year.
The Mariposa Academy LEGO Builders, coached by University of Nevada, Reno engineering student Carlos Hernandez, got started about one week ago, but the four team members said they have learned a great deal in a short amount of time.
Mariposa team members are Gustavo Moctezuma, 10, Jose Barrios, 10, Miguel Alvarez, 10, and Jesus David Torres-Vega, 11.
“We’ve learned about biomedical engineering and how mostly everything is made by engineering,” Torrez-Vega said.
“We learned about brain fractures and brain injuries,” Barrios added. “If you get hit, you can get a concussion.”
Coral Academy of Science’s Legosaurus Rex team, coached by Ozlem Idil, won grand champion honors at the conclusion of Saturday’s tourney, but each participant took home a FLL medallion from the “friendly” competition.
“The grand champions will be invited to LEGOland, Calif., for the U.S. Open in May,” Frewert said.