ORIGINALLY WRITTEN CYNTHIA MARTENS
A toy is just a toy-or is it?
What if it challenges children, excites their imagination and asks them to complete a task?
One such toy is Lego MindStorms-a sophisticated and advanced system of Lego interlocking plastic building blocks and a computer module.
And one group taking the challenge to create and explore with these blocks is the sixth-grade class at Goessel Grade School under the leadership of Principal John Fast.
“They can make robotic arms, little Lego scanning machines, and even a little device called a turtle, which they can program to write, draw letters or shapes or even to write their names,” Fast said.
Of Fast’s 26 students in a bi-weekly Lego-technology class, 10 were chosen to compete in the Lego MindStorms Competition 2002 sponsored by the colleges of Engineering and Education at Wichita State University on March 2.
The students attended the Lego competition with fourth- through eighth-graders from 20 schools around the state.
Of 12 possible trophies awarded at the contest, five schools received one trophy each, one school garnered three trophies, and Goessel triumphed with four trophies-one for finishing second place overall.
“It exceeded my expectations-they did fantastic,” Fast said.
“The idea was to introduce students to technology, to help them understand how computers, math and science all work together, and especially to develop communication skills.”
In its second year, the MindStorms challenge asked each participating school’s group of eight to 10 students to compete in a minimum of three of five predetermined missions designed by members of the engineering department.
They were judged on what they learned working with Lego technology.
Fast and his group-called the Goessel Gizmos-received their mission assignments the second week in January.
For the past six years, Fast has worked with sixth graders in his robotics class using an earlier set of Legos called Lego Dacta. But about two years ago, Lego introduced a newer and more sophisticated set called MindStorms.
Previous sets required an interface box between the computer and the Legos, and they were connected by wires.
“So you’re limited by how far you can go with it,” Fast said. “You always had to be within six feet of the computer.”
“But with the MindStorms robotics kit, now you can program it on the computer.”
The program is beamed by infrared light to a tiny Lego brain-a computer module called RCX-which allows the machines to operate without the constraints of wires.
Fast said he wanted to take a team to the first MindStorms challenge last year but lacked the funds to buy the Lego program materials. Determined to take his students this year, he heard of grant money and applied.
“So I wrote a grant to the Wolf Creek Nuclear Power Corp. and was approved for $1,000 to purchase the new MindStorms kit,” Fast said.
“And with this money, we were able to afford to take a team to the competition this year.”
Opting for a lighter load their first year, the Goessel Gizmos chose to participate in the following three missions:
Over the Brink Oxygenation-Scientists are trying to re-oxygenate a polluted planet in another dimension. The mission is to develop a machine to spark plant growth by dropping “igniter packets” into a remote canyon that has pockets of oxygenated plant seeds at the bottom;
Save the Starship Enterprise-Design a spaceship capable of maneuvering through an outer-space obstacle course to reach the Starship Enterprise and push it out into a safe area;
Invasion of the WSU Campus-WSU has been invaded by aliens who are trying to steal important technology on campus. Design a craft capable of avoiding the obstacles on campus, knocking over the aliens and rescuing the technology before it’s stolen by the intruders.
Goessel students spent time in class designing and programming their missions and also worked after school and on Saturdays.
In addition to the mission projects, the students worked on other Lego projects to be displayed at the day-long contest. They completed a robotic arm, a programmed model of a washing machine, a pneumatic arm, a scanning machine and a traffic light and car-all made of Legos.
Each student wore a team T-shirt with the words Goessel Gizmos Robotics Challenge MindStorms WSU-2002 on the front and the student’s name on the back. The T-shirts were a gift from parent volunteers who supported and encouraged their children’s efforts.
The schools were asked to bring along a lap-top computer, and if they didn’t have one, the hosting colleges provided it, Fast said.
“We do have a lap-top from a grant last year our superintendent wrote.”
The event was judged by about 20 faculty and professionals from within the community of Wichita.
The Goessel Gizmos received the following awards:
Sportsmanship and spirit award for best sportsmanship and team spirit;
First place for the mission “Over the Brink Oxygenation;”
Third place for total points received for the robotic missions;
Second place for the over-all award, which included all robotic challenges, table displays and oral presentations.
All participants received certificates and coupons, and award winners also received trophies made out of Legos.
But the awards were not the focus of the competition, according to coordinator Brenda Gile-Laflin of the College of Engineering.
“We see the value in this is to get to the kids at a young age and say, ‘You can create something cool,'” she said. “We use Legos, and we make a robot that can do a task.
“Not only is this fun, but this is engineering. This is thinking up something that can complete a task to help do something. And that’s what engineers do.”
If the students were encouraged to think about engineering as a career and saw science and technology as an exciting adventure, then Gile-Laflin said the goals of the program were accomplished.
“It’s a wonderful time, they have a great time, and they learn some good skills about making presentations and working in teams,” she said. “And that will serve them well in life.”
Fast agreed and added that he was especially pleased his team included girls as well as boys.
The girls’ team was responsible for the first place win in the “Over the Brink Oxygenation” mission.
“I really want to encourage these girls at an early age to consider that science and math technology is not something that has to be focused just for the guys.
“I want to do everything I can to let these girls know that they’re doing a super job and let the guys know too-this is for everybody.”
Fast said he knew he was faced with a new frontier in a contest he had never participated in before.
“I thought if we can just go and learn and do well and maybe come home with one trophy, I’ll be happy,” Fast said.
“But I was so pleased. The kids were so hyped that night, and we celebrated by going out for pizza at the end.”