By Felicia Lalomia and Kiara Thomas
More than 200 students from fourth to eighth grade gathered in 31 teams at Huntington High School on Feb. 2 as part of the fourth qualifying round of FIRST.
The tournament, whose acronym stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,” lasts from January to March. And up until the LEGO League Qualifiers, it has so far brought more than 3,000 students from Long Island schools who are using LEGO robots to solve real problems that can occur during long-duration space exploration.
“We need to do a bunch of missions by swapping out a small number of parts,” Jake Alpert, the 13-year-old programmer of the LEGO robot for Accompsett Middle School, said. “There’s only four attachments that we use to do six missions.”
The students worked for up to six months to design, build and program their LEGO robots to complete this year’s mission, Into Orbit, using LEGO Mindstorm technology.
Alpert has been involved in programming since learning basic coding in elementary school and is using what he learned to pursue a career in engineering. The love for building and programming brought him and 200 Long Island teams to the competition.
“They’re all autonomous, once they put the robot down it has to do everything,” Rick Ramhap, the co-director of FIRST, said. “They can’t drive it or anything…They have to go capture certain things and do certain things to get points.”
Other than programming the LEGO robots, the competition consists of two other parts: project design and core values. The teams of up to 10 members select a challenge that astronauts could face in space and are also tested on their ability to work together.
The challenge Accompsett Middle School tried to solve was how to help astronauts cope with violent tendencies, which can result in dementia and Alzheimer’s, John Galletta, a 14-year-old member on the team, said.
“So, we have these puzzles that are tangible…to engage in cognitive thinking and add variations to their lives so they’re not stuck in the same thing every day,” he said.
The core values are judged by how teams work together. The competitors are evaluated on: discovery, innovation, impact, inclusion, teamwork and fun.
“[The Judges] see if the kids know the core values and exhibit the core values within and outside of their team,” Chris Baker, the judge advisor, said. “And then they are given a five minute teamwork task to see how well they work together.”
The five-minute task can vary from putting together a tower made from playing cards to building a bridge from toothpicks.
“We teach this as part of their curriculum in both 5th and 6th grade,” Donna Moro, a coach for the Agrinauts team from Jack Abrams STEM Magnet School, said. “Every student in our school learns a little bit about what it means to compete and then from that we identify the leader, the ones that are really motivated [and] the ones that want to go on and represent our school in these regional competitions.”
The organization changes lives, Stephanie Stern, co-director of First LEGO League, explained.
“The other thing I really love about FIRST is that you don’t have to be a rocket scientist. It’s not just for elite students,” Stern said. “It’s for kids that learn better with their hands. It’s for kids that work well on a team.”
New York University’s robotics design team, which does not partake in the tournament, is a group of students who program robots for the advancement of the engineering field, according to their website. Allie Karakosta, a sophomore on the team and chemical and biomolecular engineering major, is new to robotics and said it has been invaluable to her education.
“[Robotics] has given me a completely different perspective on engineering and gives me hands-on experience that you just don’t learn in a classroom. It has taught me the value of being on a team and how important communication within a team in an academic setting is,” she said.
Six of the teams from each qualifying round will move onto the Long Island Championship in Longwood. From there, they have the opportunity to move onto the World Championship in Detroit.