LAFAYETTE — Team Phoenix, a Lafayette youth robotics team, is taking “Scorcher,” its championship Lego-clad robot, to the Ozarks this spring to compete against robotics teams from around the world.
After clinching the FIRST LEGO League’s Champion’s Award earlier this month in the Louisiana Championship Tournament in New Orleans, the team in May will head to Fayetteville, Arkansas, to compete in the Razorback Open Invitational at the University of Arkansas.
The competition focuses on stimulating children’s interest in science, technology, engineering and math, with more than 250,000 children competing.
By building and programming the Lego-based robots, the students learn basic coding and engineering, as well as management and leadership skills.
The Lafayette team of six is between the ages of 9 and 14 and includes home-schooled and parochial school students. Their coach is University of Louisiana at Lafayette education professor Douglas Williams, whose three sons, Caleb, 14, Aaron, 12, and Joseph, 9, are on the team.
“What’s neat about (FIRST LEGO League) is that it’s not just about engineering or programming,” Williams said. “It’s about innovation but also about developing in kids the values that will help them succeed in life.”
Teams are judged in four categories: how well their robot performs completing a set of tasks; robot design; project presentation; and core values such as spirit, partnership, respect and professionalism.
The team that scores highest in all categories combined wins the Champion’s Award.
“I think what’s most important is that they learn how to innovate and create solutions for a problem and how that works within a team,” Williams said.
In the robot game section, teams put their Lego Mindstorms robots on an 8-by-4-foot table to autonomously complete pre-determined tasks, which range from throwing a ball into a goal to collecting rings. The children utilize Lego’s Mindstorms desktop coding application to program the robots to complete the tasks.
Working with the same Lego technology and basic designs over the years allows the youngsters the opportunity to work on their team’s robot over a longer period of time than a public school curriculum would allow.
Williams said this is what makes the program so appealing.
“It’s multiple iterations of improving your designs over the years,” he said. “In typical school, you don’t have a chance to work on problems over a long period of time.”
Learning how to program through the Lego Mindstorms application was one of team member Aaron Williams’ biggest takeaways from working with Team Phoenix, he said.
“I really like the programming aspect of it,” the 12-year-old said. “Before this, I knew a little bit about programming. I did some robotics camps. But now, I can program it to do math, I can program it to sense certain colors, I can program it to talk.”
As for Caleb Williams and Grant Thomas, both 14, this competition will be their last with Team Phoenix.
“Each year, it gets better and better,” Thomas said. “With the programming and the design, you might come up with a great idea one year, and the next year, you might come up with a better idea for programming the robot.”
Caleb Williams agreed.
“Every single year, you can look back and see what did and didn’t work,” he said.
Although the robot competition is probably the biggest draw for most, each team must complete a research project as well, all relating to a theme disclosed in August.
The challenges are usually broad, like this year’s theme of trying to improve the way people learn.
Team Phoenix focused on trying to improve how boys are taught in the classroom and keeping their attention through useful tips for teachers.
“We did research and found that boys are getting worse grades than girls and twice as likely to get expelled than girls,” Aaron Williams said. “So, we wondered, ‘Why?’ ”
They found, he said, that classrooms aren’t geared toward boys, so they designed these tips for educators: allow the students to stand up or walk around while learning, find other places to teach besides the classroom and use competition as part of their instructional tools.
“We tested it on some kids,” Aaron Williams said, “and found the tips really do work.”