Robotics organizes Junior Lego Expo

Robotics organizes Junior Lego Expo

As elementary school students, many of us were told by teachers about our limitless futures, how we could be anything we wanted to be. But the struggle for most kids was figuring out what exactly it was that they wanted to be. Most elementary schools have music classes and science fairs that allow students to dip their toes in potential career paths. But we weren’t usually exposed to the specifics of what those careers entailed. Robotics club, however, is working to change that by giving young students interested in STEM the opportunity to further explore it.

By hosting and therefore planning out the annual First Lego League, FLL, Junior Expo at Westview, Robotics hopes to provide children ages 6 through 10 with a gateway to STEM exploration.

Every year, FIRST, the founders of the expo and the nation’s largest robotics organization, announces the theme for the expo; this year’s theme was “aqua adventure.” Elementary school teams of around six students gathered to research the theme, create a poster and build a large Lego model with moveable parts to illustrate their findings. Those teams were then invited to present their models and posters at the expo.

“Planning [the expo] was a ton of work,” Vice President of Robotics Outreach Richard Mao (12) said. “First of all you have 100 kids coming, so we have to book [class]rooms far in advance, we need to send an email to the judges to get confirmation, and we have to plan our demos and figure out what is going where.”

When the event rolled around, Feb. 3, Robotics was more than prepared. Arriving at 10:30 a.m. to set up check-in tables outside the theater, four students greeted the roughly 100 kids as they poured into the school, while many other Robotics members worked tediously behind the scenes to set up the demos.

In previous years, the expo has been hosted at Legoland, but seven years ago Westview Robotics students decided to offer a local alternative at the school so that parents didn’t have to travel so far. As the years went on, the team used this option to showcase their own robots and in turn inspire the kids in a new way.

“[The expo] is an easy going event,” Arvind Krishnan (11), current Robotics coordinator of the FLL Junior Expo said. “The enthusiasm and creativity inspires Westview [Robotics] students.”

Each of the 23 elementary school teams attending the event presented their models and posters in front of a panel of five judges in a private classroom. The judges’ panel was comprised of industry professionals from sponsor companies such as BAE Systems, Qualcomm, and Northrop Grumman.

After watching the teams present, the judges categorized each of the teams into one of the following six categories: inquiring minds, team spirit, complexity and decoration, effort and learning, amazing movement, and gracious professionalism. By having every team win one of the six accomplishments rather than having one overall winner, Mao said they hoped to ensure that the kids didn’t shy away from STEM, but rather felt encouraged and excited to continue pursuing it.

According to Krishnan, one of the main goals for having the expo at Westview was to expose the kids to the next level of robotics, encouraging them to continue on with it.

“At the Expo, we have many demos that have been made by our very own Robotics students showcasing what we are doing at the high school level,” Krishnan said. “This event gives them a taste of what they will be able to do at a high school level, [and allows] Robotics kids to engage with younger students pursuing STEM.”

In engaging with the young students, Robotics students became role models according to Mao, acting as mentors to the kids through demonstrations, where the kids were encouraged to ask questions and delve into the more complex world of robot building. After finishing their presentations, the FLL Junior teams were free to explore the two rooms of demos the Robotics team put together.

Over the years the team has grown focused on demos, introducing more and more each year; this year featured eight main ones as opposed to the six from last year.

The most noteworthy robot demos on display included the team’s competition robot from last year, which can shoot balls 10 feet into the air as well as climb a rope, and Milky White, a robotic cow that was originally made as a theater prop a few years ago.

In addition to actual robots, the team shared some insight into how they visualize the robots before they physically build them. In setting up four computers equipped with “Tinker CAD,” the 3D modeling software used by the team, the kids were able to play around with the program and learn about an often overlooked side of robotics. The club also had a 3D printer on display, allowing Robotics members to give the kids a thorough walkthrough of the brainstorming stages.

Each demo was run by three or four Robotics students who briefly explained the demo before it began. As kids moved from demo to demo, they were encouraged to ask the students monitoring them as many questions about the building process as their minds could conjure, allowing them to get a feel of what robotics at a high school level entails.

“We invited FLL teams as well, so you have FLL junior teams and then FLL teams which are the next level,” Mao said. “We invited local FLL teams from Park Village to come over and present their work. They’ve actually started building robots, so we wanted [the kids] to see the next step for [them]: to build an actual robot.”

To conclude the day, an awards ceremony was held to honor the elementary school teams that participated in the day’s events.

Once everyone was seated in the theater, the kids were asked about their favorite demo of the day. They enthusiastically yelled out their answers, many of them with heightened interest in robotics after having seen what the high-schoolers have accomplished.

While the FLL Junior Expo certainly kept the hands of Westview Robotics full with planning, according to Mao, it allowed them to reach out to younger kids, showing them that it is possible to succeed and continue with robotics and demonstrating the ways in which their activities would intensify if they follow through with it.

“A lot of people think in robotics that we all just build robots, but actually a big part of what we want to do is outreach.” Mao said. “We want to make sure we take whatever we discover and give it back to the community, because not only will you have the ability to mentor but you make sure you get the next generation of engineers and innovators going.”