LAKE WYLIE -- Everyone remembers the little plastic pieces, interlocked in some forgotten toy bin from another time. Well, LEGOs are back, and soon they'll be doing things most people probably never imagined they could.
Clover High School will host its first LEGO robotics competition Saturday for children aged 9 to 14, sponsored by Crowders Creek LEGO Robotics.
"It really is a terrific experience," said FIRST LEGO League spokeswoman Marian Murphy. "It's incredible what these kids learn and what they're able to share with us about what they've learned. You'll truly be amazed."
The event will bring 40 teams and up to 1,000 people from throughout York County and other parts of the state, including Chester, Greenville and Spartanburg.
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Of those teams, 17 will come from the Clover School district -- Crowders Creek brings 10, Clover Middle School four and Clover Junior High three. In total, South Carolina fields 170 teams vying to make the top 80 seats for a chance to win the Feb. 16 state championship at Littlejohn Coliseum at Clemson University.
"It's unbelievable," Crowders Creek program sponsor Scott Jeffery said of the final event. "The lower levels are filled with spectators and kids."
What is LEGO robotics?
So what do these LEGO pieces have in common with the childhood toy? They're all about connections.
"Using LEGOs as a vehicle to teach computer programming and basic engineering and robotics is fascinating," Jeffery said. "Listening to a fourth-, fifth- or sixth-grader present research on the climate or describe why they have built the robotic arm to perform a specific task is proof that they are truly learning."
Jeffery started the Crowders Creek program four years ago with three teams. Now, he has 10 teams with eight to 10 students each in grades 4 through 6.
"We could have had 15 teams we had so many kids on the waiting list," Jeffery said.
Students spend 10 weeks beginning in September with common LEGO pieces, motors, sensors, software and gears designing a motorized robot that can perform simple tasks on the competition table. Each team has volunteer parents and school staff assistance helping to design robots.
"This is just scratching the surface of what they can do," Jeffery said. "This is a program that's run mostly by parent volunteers."
Teams receive grades on four activities -- the table competition, teamwork, a research presentation on climate and the technical presentation of their robot. The 2008 theme, Climate Connections, courses throughout the competition.
"Every mission has something to do with the environment," Jeffery said.
What to expect
Nathan Dubrouillet, a fifth-grader at Crowders Creek, spent Thursday afternoon working with his team to figure out how their robot could transport "carbon balls" on the competition table en route to completing other tasks. After all, multitasking is key for robots that only spend two and a half minutes on the table.
"We're going to modify it so it can carry these balls over here," Dubrouillet explained of the software program.
On the table, teams receive points for tasks such as lifting or lowering objects to herding carbon balls, moving levees and placing flood barriers. Each team uses the same computerized motor, but modifies the machine with LEGO "arms and legs" to complete tasks. During the tournament, robots use preprogrammed commands leaving the teams only to watch their work in action.
Unfortunately, Dubrouillet said Thursday, they do not get to use a joystick.
"If we could, we wouldn't be doing this right now," he said.
As students like Dubrouillet work on the technical/robotics side, sixth-graders Emma Messer and Christina Clay work on research.
"We're working on a presentation on climate and the drought," Messer said.
These students interview locals on weather and the current drought, then try to find a unique approach to present their findings.
"We're doing a weather broadcast," Cray said, "like you would see on the news."
At Saturday's competition, the teams will travel quickly from one station to the next presenting their robots, information and team spirit.
"We are expecting a large group of students from around the state and hoping for an even larger group of spectators to enjoy this event," said tournament director Nigel Kinswood of Lake Wylie. "We are confident that this will be a memorable experience for the kids."
Connect the pieces
Jeffery hopes plastic pieces will not be the only connections made Saturday. Judges for the day include adult and student volunteers from the district, as well as the science curriculum coordinator. Jeffery would like to see the Crowders Creek club feed into more complicated engineering classwork at the high school level. He even hopes to have two $1,000 scholarships for high school seniors to study engineering, paid for by corporate sponsorships from Saturday.
Already Jeffery has great support from the district, from leaders agreeing to host the tournament to helping construct 10 tournament tables and even building trophies out of LEGO pieces.
That type of effort, Murphy said, can help a program go beyond toys and games to a valuable educational experience.
"We do actually have evidence that children who participate in the different programs do show -- more than just in normal groups of kids who are excited about math and science -- that they do plan on going into fields of science," she said.
Want to go?
The FIRST LEGO League regional qualifying tournament will be held from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at Clover High School gymnasium. The event is free, with refreshments available for purchase. For more information, call 803-831-1339.
About FIRST LEGO
FIRST LEGO League is a competition open to students age 9 to14. Along with junior and high school divisions, the program includes almost 140,000 students worldwide in 42 countries. The program started in 1989, with the first ichampionship held in 1992. This year, there are 350 qualifying tournaments and 90 championship events worldwide, including the World Festival April 16-18 at the Georgiadome in Atlanta.