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Lego competition inspires
youngsters' interest in robotics

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Hallie Richardson got involved in Lego robotics to follow in the footsteps of her father, Luther, who coaches a Lego robotics team at Columbus High School. She joined the Mindstorm Bulldogs, a Lego robotics team at her elementary school.

However, Richardson, 8, a third-grader at Britt David Elementary School in Columbus, has already taken a deeper interest in robotics. She is particularly interested in the programming aspect of robot building, and she can now program a robot to measure distance and detect heat.

"I like to run the robot," Richardson said. "What I don't like is when the robot doesn't cooperate, and won't listen to me."

More than 200 elementary and middle school students, like Richardson, and their parents and coaches, came from across Georgia on Saturday to Clayton State University for the First Lego League's South Atlanta Qualifier tournament. The competitors represented 25 schools from around the state.

The Woodstock-based Gear Geeks won the tournament championship, and is one of the eight teams which earned the right to advance to the Super Qualifyer Competition on Jan. 10, 2009, in Dalton. The other teams advancing to the Super Qualifier competition are: the Mind Warriors; the Hurricanes; the Trinity Robobrainiacs; the Yottabytes; the Lego Lunatics; the Techno Tiaras, and the Metallic Stallions.

The top 48 teams from the Super Qualifyer Competition move onto the state tournament, which will be held on Jan. 30, 2009, at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, said Cherie Long, an associate professor of information technology at Clayton State, and the coordinator for the university-hosted competition.

Teams place in the championship category based on how they do in four other categories: Robot performance; research (a report on the competition theme, which this year was climate connections); technical aspect, and teamwork.

"Statistics show, in the middle grades, students start losing an interest in math, science and engineering," said Long. "By allowing them to do this, it sparks that interest again."

Lila Roberts, dean of Clayton State's College of Information and Mathematical Sciences, said it is important to get children interested in those areas because the technology field is facing a shortage of workers. "That's one of the hot areas where people can still find jobs, despite the economy," said Roberts.

The competition brings out the creative sides of the youngsters. Their minds are engaged, not only as they design and build a robot out of Legos, but also as they come up with their outfits for the event. Some teams dress up as scientists, while others wear modified T-shirts, which include the lapels of a suit jacket, a tie and the collar of a dress shirt.

The RoBugs, a team made up of home-schooled students in McDonough, wore hats that had green antennae sticking out of the top. "That comes from our name, which actually means 'Robots Under God,' but we call ourselves the RoBugs for short," said Matt Clark, 14, a member of the team. "We just took that name and ran with the bug theme."

The RoBugs finished third in the robotic performance category, but fell just a few spots shy of advancing to the Super Qualifier competition.

One the teams competing across the table from the RoBugs in a round of competition was the RoboKnights, from Pace Academy in Atlanta. Some members of the RoboKnights, like Philip Werner, 12, and Zack Marotta, 11, got involved in the competitive world of Lego robotics because of their own interest in computers and technology.

"It's pretty fun stuff," said Werner, who added that he would like to pursue a life in engineering. "I like doing the engineering-related stuff because it's interesting to see how things work," he added.

But, Marotta said he has taken more of an interest in the programming aspect of robotics. "I like the technology," he said. "It's just amazing stuff."