Though it took only minutes for the eight-member team to break the LEGO robot down into its component pieces, NELSEN was the product of months of research and experimentation as the Crittenden Pantherbot team prepared to enter this year's First LEGO League (FLL) tournament.
Since 1999, the international competition has invited student teams from all over the world to collaborate in an effort to help solve a real-world problem using science and technology.
Emma van Geuns, a Crittenden sixth-grader, said she signed up for robotics club after seeing demonstration put on by Google at the school last year.
"Google came in with a bunch of robots. They gave you a robot with a bag of attachments and they want you to build something for that period. I thought, 'That's really cool,' and I wanted to do that again," she said.
This year, the tournament's competitive elements revolved around the theme of "senior solutions," challenging students to come up with ways to improve and maintain the quality of life for senior citizens in their own communities. NELSEN, Crittenden's "Networking, EverLasting, SENior" robot is meant to do just that.
While it may have been just a prototype, NELSEN was the centerpiece of the Pantherbot's research into the needs of senior citizens, which involved field trips to health professionals at Stanford, and interviewing residents at the Mountain View Senior Center. NELSEN, in his fully fleshed-out form, could help seniors with tasks like identifying medications using color sensors, and would have an extendable arm to help grab hard-to-reach objects.
Along with an assessment of the clarity and completeness of their research presentation, students are also judged on the sophistication and design of their competition robots, used in the the most visible portion of the tournament, the robot games. The students meticulously construct and program these autonomous robots to complete a number of delicate tasks, like lassooing a tiny LEGO chair, in two-and-a-half minutes.
But effective teamwork, and an adherence to the tournament's core values of learning, innovation and sportsmanship are given equal weight as well, and it was here that the Pantherbots excelled at this year's regional tournament. The team took second place out of 48 teams in the teamwork category at the Peninsula District FLL Championship Tournament in Redwood City earlier this month.
Agnes Kaiser, a Crittenden math teacher and former engineer, has coached the Pantherbot team alongside Dave Offen, an engineering consultant, since the robotics club was formed seven years ago. Charlie Federmann, Crittenden's media arts and computer technology instructor provides guidance as well. The coaches said they take special care to leave the direction of the research and the problem solving to the students.
"Coaches aren't allowed to build or program the robot, so it's left up to the students. We coach them on specific skills that they can apply, but we don't actually solve any of these missions for them. If they're having trouble, we try to ask leading questions without giving away the answers we are suggesting," Offen said.
Aside from showing kids that robotics, science and mathematics can be "really cool," Crittenden Principal Geoffrey Chang, who coached an FLL robotics club during his time as a teacher in Brooklyn, said he sees potential in the way that the club approaches problem-solving.
"By empowering students to think critically about solving a problem and empowering them to think that they can solve it, I think that's super powerful," Chang said.
Kaiser said that the club has grown since its inception seven years ago, and now boasts enough students to necessitate both a varsity and junior varsity team. Currently, budget restrictions prevent the junior varsity squad from formally entering the tournament, but Chang said he's open to the idea of expanding Crittenden's robotics program even further.
"I really hope to see it grow next year and beyond," Chang said. "It would be awesome if, one day, we could turn it into a full-fledged class. I don't know if logistics and the budget will allow it, but it's certainly something on my radar."
The club received a $1,000 donation from Stanford last year, which helped to cover the tournament's entrance fee and purchase new equipment, but Kaiser said she'll be on the lookout for more funding for next year.
"Some of our laptops are starting to go, and the hardware is where the most expensive pieces are," she said. "We need the support of the community so that these programs keep going. It really teaches a lot of very important skills."
But while funding may still be up in the air, the Crittenden LEGO Robotics Club enjoys an ample amount of enthusiasm from students. When they were asked how many of them would be returning to the team next year, all but the graduating eighth-graders immediately put up their hands.