JANESVILLE

This time, no more turns.

This time, it’s on to nationals—or at least Lego Land.

St. William Catholic School’s First Lego League team got together Tuesday for a final practice in advance of Sunday’s state Lego robotics competition.

This is the team’s third trip to state, and its returning members are determined to make this their best effort. Half the team will graduate in June.

Sure, they could be on a First Lego League team at Parker or Craig high schools, but it won’t be the same.

“We’re like a family,” said Olivia Mauritz, throwing her arm around two of her teammates.

Here’s how a Lego robotics competition works:

Students are given a theme—this year it was water—and get a game board and a Lego robotics kit.

From there, the students have to build and program their robots to perform tasks on the game board. For example, the robot might have to pick up and move a well, get a fire truck to the proper spot or flush a toilet—a Lego toilet, of course.

The more tasks a robot can do in 2 minutes, 30 seconds, the higher the students score.

But here’s the thing: Even if you have the fastest robot on the table, you can’t win unless you do well in the three morning events, said Bob Getka, a Parker High School computer science teacher and one of the team’s coaches.

The morning events include:

  • A presentation on that year’s topic. The St. William team will talk about graywater—wastewater produced in sinks, washers and in the kitchen, explained team member Kyna Smith. In many places in the South, graywater is recycled so it can be used in the toilet, Smith said.
  • A team problem-solving exercise. One year, teams were asked to stand on a rug and turn it over without using their hands.
  • Explaining to the judges how their robots work. How did they make their programming decisions?

If asking a middle-schooler about programming decisions seems strange, consider this: Mimi Hahn, one of the team’s coaches, teaches basic programming to kindergartners.

And Getka is reconsidering his high school programming curriculum because students know significantly more than they once did.

For this year’s competition, the St. William team is doing things differently. Instead of designing a robot that turns, they made one that moves only backward and forward. All of the tasks can be done with arms that extend off the robot, said Jim Speece, a team mentor.

Even with the best programming, a robot’s trajectory changes in an infinitesimal way when it turns. That can throw everything off.

On Tuesday, sixth-grader Carter Smalley and eighth-grader Jake Brost made their robot go through a series of trial runs. One little glitch could cost them points. For example, if the robotic arm that pulls the firetruck away from its station pulls too vigorously, the truck might tip over. Those plastic wheels are unreliable.

Speece and the students had a spreadsheet that showed how many points each task was worth and how long each one took. Using that information helped them plot their course.

Kids joined the team—and stayed on it—for a variety of reasons.

“It was exciting to be a part of something that wasn’t a sports team,” Mauritz said.

Smith joined just to give it a try. She stayed because she liked the challenge of solving problems on the fly.

“You really have to think outside the box,” Smith said.

If the students place in the top four spots, they’ll head to a national event in either Detroit or Arkansas. The fifth-place team gets to go to Lego Land.

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