CASTINE – Preprogrammed robots rolled across a small field Sunday, performing assigned tasks related to the dangers associated with climate change – strengthening a levee, retrieving ice cores, studying wildlife and raising a flood barrier.
The robots were small, as were the budding engineers and mathematicians who had programmed them.
The tasks were part of the annual First LEGO League competition held at Maine Maritime Academy, and the young programmers were students ages 9-14 from schools throughout northern and eastern Maine.
“The purpose of the tournament is to interest students in science, math and technology,” said Thomas Bickford, president and director of Maine Robotics, which sponsors the tournament.
According to Bickford, the students are presented in September with a series of tasks that their robots must perform and they work in teams throughout the fall in preparation for the competition. They design the robots, which are built from the LEGO blocks, and develop the programs with the help of local coaches.
This year, about 120 students from 18 schools participated in the competition in Castine. Next Saturday, in a separate competition, 32 teams from around the state will gather in southern Maine for a similar tournament.
More than 10,000 students internationally and about 7,000 in the U.S. participate in the competition. They are assigned identical tasks to perform on the same playing field, which is a large table laid out with identical features, over and around which the robots must navigate.
Volunteer judges observe the demonstration, ranking the teams based on tasks completed and on how well they have designed and programmed the robots.
“We show the judges how the robot works and how we came up with the design for it,” said Owen Weigang, a fifth-grade member of The Big Bang team from Asa Adams School in Orono.
Classmate Zachary Welch-Enman said they were judged on the programming and whether the students had programmed the robot correctly. After they had run the course, he said, they met with a judge to show the program on their computer and answer questions.
The challenges, which change each year, encourage a multidisciplinary approach to the tasks, which also includes problem solving. Students exhibited their problem-solving skills on Sunday, especially when their robots didn’t work as designed.
“We’ve had some difficulties,” said Karen Noble, a fifth-grade pupil from the Luigians Team from Beech Hill School in Otis. “We only have one computer and we’ve had some problems with it. We’re not able to access the program so we can’t change anything.”
Despite their difficulties, the team members said they enjoyed the competition and the different aspects of the challenge, including learning about climate change and the work required to compete.
At another table, the team from Surry Elementary School seemed to be having a little more success. They had their laptop computer with them as they put the robot through a trial run, making changes where needed.
In addition to the robotic challenge, each team was required to make a presentation on a topic related to the tournament theme, which this year was Climate Connections, dealing with climate change.
Results of the competition were not available Sunday afternoon. Performance and technical awards were to be given.