On Dec. 8, half a dozen fifth-graders from Pinon Hills Elementary School competed in the Northern Nevada First Lego League Championship Tournament held at Sparks High School.
Although it was its rookie year, the team - M Cubed - took first place in the robot game portion of the competition, winning the Robot Performance Award.
This award is given to the team with the highest score in completing challenges with its robot during a 2.5-minute round.
In addition, the team won the Programming Award, which is based on the evaluation of judges. This award recognizes the team whose programming demonstrated excellence in strategy and structure by creating clear, concise, and reusable code that allows the robot to perform challenge missions autonomously and consistently.
M Cubed was the first team ever from Douglas County to participate in the FLL competition.
The team members are Nanami Duncan, Josh Herup, Wyatt Kremer, Grant Kuhlmann, Gaby Monachino and Carter Olson. The coaches are Scot Duncan and David Monachino.
"I was a little nervous," said Nanami Duncan, "because most of the kids were older than us."
The age range for FLL is 9 - 14 years old, and all of the members of M Cubed are 10 years old.
FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was founded in 1989 and, in partnership with the Lego Group, created FLL, a program dedicated to sparking interest among young people in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. As a means of achieving this end, the Lego Mindstorms NXT robotics system is used as a foundation for building robots and developing programming code to complete missions on a four-foot-by-eight-foot playing field.
"With achievement in math and science in such a sad state, the opportunity to get students excited about these fields, both academically and as future career paths, made this program very attractive," said Monachino.
Beyond robotics and programming, teams are required to do research on a given topic, interact with their local community and present their findings. The theme this year was "senior solutions." Teams were tasked with learning about the challenges faced by seniors, as well as develop at least one unique solution that would help make the lives of seniors better.
M Cubed's solution was to improve walkers and rollators by creating a "geared wheel" that would only roll a certain distance, lock momentarily and then roll again. This was to prevent falls that occur when rollators roll away from their users.
Other improvements the team developed were different colored grips and brake handles, to make it easier to see the difference, support/release bar in front for stability, two-stage brakes, and a strap in the back to prevent the user from drifting too far away from the rollator while walking.
As part of the research project, the team visited two local assisted living facilities: Merrill Gardens in Gardnerville and Sierra Place in Carson City.
The team also selected a senior partner, Barbara Cooper, whom they interviewed in order to learn about her life and how things had changed as she got older.
"There were many valuable lessons for the kids from this experience, but perhaps the one they can carry forward to other activities is structured problem solving," said Duncan. "They learned how to break down a major challenge into manageable pieces, develop strategies that weighed the tradeoffs, and apply practical solutions."