Education International
Education International

Talented youngsters discover the world of robotics

published 4 June 2010 updated 23 March 2011

Technology is everywhere, including the classroom, so we publish articles on software and computers, we test netbooks and smartphones, but in this issue we report on an initiative being supported by EI’s Swiss member organisation Dachverband Schweizer Lehrerinnen und Lehrer(LCH). In partnership with the Canton of Aargau, which manages a grants programme for promising students, the LCH supports the First Lego League, which is a tournament in which young people from around the world make robots out of LEGO.

Assembly, programming and testing are the name of the game. During the First Lego League competition, eight pupils from the Canton of Aargau broughtpieces of LEGO to life; they took on teams from around the world and celebrated international victories. The tournament helped them to develop their research skills, interest in technology and build team spirit.

The competition throws children and young people, between the ages of 10 and 16, into a competitive environment with science and technology at the forefront. Each competition is given a different theme and this year, the title is ‘Intelligent mobility: transporting goods and people’ and the children must decide how to programme their robot to complete a number of tasks as safely and quickly as possible.

These are qualities are that the Avaloq team know they have to perfect if they want to go on to compete against other groups and win the competition.

Solving problems without assistance

After the theme is published online, each team has eight weeks in which to develop a robot capable of performing tasks specified on the day of the competition. The young people have to study the instructions carefully, come up with solutions, build robots, programme them and make them work. Often, the first solution that springs to mind proves unworkable in this demanding competition, and youngsters are forced to go back to the drawing board. The key challenge is that the robots must only be built from pieces of LEGO, and then programmed by the young people using a laptop. They control the robot using tactile sensors, optical detectors and sound sensors.

Another rule of the competition states that all tasks must be performed within 2 minutes and 30 seconds, and each match ends when the whistle is blown. For this reason, Avaloq team, which takes its name from its main sponsor, ensures that every detail is finely-tuned. Adding to the challenge of securing a victory for its team, the robot must not only be able to perform tasks to perfection but it must also be capable of transformation, although each time it transforms, precious time is taken up.

Presenting a research project

The theory behind the creations also counts, so each team must present their research project to a panel of experts. Avaloq has put together a team for the presentation. Hayley, 16, is particularly enthusiastic: “I am always trying to come up with ideas that are feasible and original. A lot of money is spent on research. Presenting the project is just as important as the points scored by the robot in the play area.”

The panel also assesses teamwork. As the group progresses throughout the tournament, new demands are imposed.

‘Robotics’ as part of the research bid

The project is covered by the grants programme for promising ‘robotics’ students in the Canton of Aargau. For Michel Beat, member of the LCH and team coach, this is all about “supporting pupils and then defining requirements to pursue an exceptional project together.”

“To prevent winning the competition becoming the sole aim, team members are involved in other research tasks. They never focus on one activity alone. The goals achieved along the way are important milestones in finishing the project,” adds Michel Beat who also highlights the positive aspects of this work: “I have been teaching in special classes for nearly 30 years. It is essential to devise original concepts to broaden young people’s horizons in their everyday school life. Formulating specific problems has proved to be a particularly positive experience as it makes learners think. The process of identifying solutions collectively also gives meaning to the work carried out.”

Another essential aspect is the active participation of pupils in the assessment delivered at the First Lego League. Besides building a robot without help, this competition provides an opportunity for children to develop other skills through support given during the learning process, analysing the results and identifying alternatives when a goal is not achieved. Presenting the results also encourages the pupils to have their say and communicate. Documentation on resolving a specific problem highlights creative potential and problem-solving strategies.

Interpersonal skills are developed through group work in the project, as young people can demonstrate their talents most effectively when they work together. The cutting-edge researcher needs specialised robotics expertise, and communication skills are essential for team assessments. Therefore it is crucial that all team members are able to play a role in the activity. Recognising limits is another objective of the project, although the possibilities are endless.

Thrilling selection process

At the end of each year, a number of children put themselves forward as candidates by submitting their portfolio, based on their teacher’s recommendations. Entries for the project are selected during a qualification phase. The problem specifications are available to the children which means that all robots already have their own characteristics.

“Each time, we see impressive results achieved entirely without help. Two or three of these talented youngsters are picked for the team to take part in the First Lego League international competition. This has proven a successful combination,” says one coach.

140,000 participants from around the world

Participation rates at the tournament – which was launched in 1998 by the First Lego League – are steadily rising. In 2008, more than 140,000 young people from 49 countries took part. There were 4,490 European participants from seven countries of whom 22% were girls. This international competition aims to encourage a young generation of researchers and technology enthusiasts to become actively involved in this sector. The results speak for themselves – with its highly motivated team, Avaloq has participated in four European finals in the last five years. With its excellent project presentations, Avaloq has also qualified four times for the Franco-German Scientific Forum in Berlin and Paris. Last year, the team was awarded seventh place at the Eastern European final and qualified for the Open European Championship which took place in Istanbul at the end of April, 2010.

By Martin Binkert.

(c) Dachverband Schweizer Lehrerinnen und Lehrer(LCH). Reprinted with permission. This article was published in Worlds of Education, Issue 34, June 2010.