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Mission possible: Delavan middle school students advance to state competition

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Kayla Bunge
November 18, 2007
— As a pair of wind turbines hovered high above a subdivision, a robot delivered a hydrogen car to a residence.

Ten middle-school boys towered above the city, reaching over rooftops and trees, careful not to snap off a Lego block in their wake.


It was a typical practice for the Phoenix Middle School FIRST Lego League team.


It’s crunch time for the team, with only three weeks left before the Dec. 9 state competition in Appleton.


The FIRST Lego League is a robotics program in which kids design and build an autonomous robot using Lego technology. They program the robot to complete real-world tasks based on a theme.


This year, teams explored energy use and production and developed solutions to reduce consumption and move toward alternative energy.


The local team—nicknamed Batteries Not Included—performed an energy audit of the 55-acre campus that includes Delavan-Darien High School, Phoenix Middle School and the school district administration center.


They concluded that cutting the grass is too costly.


Their solution? Reduce the amount of grass that needs cutting by planting 10 acres of native vegetation and use robotic mowers, powered by energy generated by a wind turbine, to cut the remaining 45 acres.


“This is one of the most complicated years ever,” said team coordinator Sue Haskins, who started a high school team in Elkhorn almost 10 years ago.


She said the kids are learning that energy conservation has trade-offs, and that’s reflected in the “missions” their robot must complete to earn points in competition.


They can move the hydrogen car to a residence, but they won’t score points unless they take the truck to be recycled. They can erect power lines in a community, but they’ll score extra points if that community has a wind turbine, too.


And the teams only have 2-1/2 minutes in which to accomplish those tasks.


Batteries Not Included programmed its robot to complete several missions in succession, which earned the team the Robot Design Award at the regional competition Nov. 3.


But it’s not just about what the robots can do. It’s about what the kids learned and how well they worked together.


“I’ve been amazed,” said coach Cassandra Ettner, whose two sons, Chris and Ryan, are on the team.


The team was nominated at the regional competition for the Chairman’s Award, which is given to teams that demonstrate technical ability, knowledge of the year’s theme, teamwork, respect and professionalism.


Perhaps the boys’ most noteworthy accomplishment is that they got this far almost entirely on their own. They have coaches and even two high school mentors, but those people are there strictly to guide them.


“They own this,” Haskins said.



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