A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…the WKU Engineering LEGO Robotics Competition began! Now an annual event for WKU engineers and the Bowling Green community, Saturday’s occurrence marked the competition’s 16th year of existence. Each year, elementary and middle school-aged students form teams to create their very own robots, using LEGO Mindstorm kits. Their robots are then put to the test, as they go through obstacle courses and complete tasks, all judged by WKU Engineering faculty and students from the Tau Beta Pi Engineering Honors Society.
This year’s theme brought a new level of excitement to the competition. Students had to take their robots through two Star Wars-themed courses, the first being the Death Star course. In this course, students could choose to either follow a zig-zagged line along a clear path or brave the asteroid belt, where they weren’t restricted to a certain path, but had to dodge obstacles and pop asteroid balloons. Teams had two minutes to try to make it to the center of the course and knock over Darth Vader, thus completing this course’s objective. The second course was the Star Wars (Over the Years) Course, where teams had to send their robots on missions to score points. Again they had two minutes, but in this course, teams tried to complete as many objectives as possible in the allotted time. One team “driver” was responsible for setting the robot in the start zone, sending it out on their mission of choice, and bringing it back to the start zone at the completion of each mission to begin again.
On February 27, Drake’s Creek Middle School gymnasium opened up for the 2016 competition. Excitement filled the air as students gathered with their teammates to discuss strategy for the day’s competition. Star Wars movies played from a screen in the center of the room, serving as entertainment for the parent-filled bleachers before the event began. Over 150 coaches and parents attended the competition, and 65 students competed on 23 teams. Some teams in official uniforms, others dressed in their best Star Wars attire, all participants were full of energy and enthusiasm. Teams sat on the floor, a few kids choosing to stretch in preparation, others reviewing their programming codes on computers. Soon, the competition began with a quick “May the Force be with you” from WKU’s engineering department head—the Star Wars equivalent of “Play ball!”
Teams gathered around their respective courses, waiting for their turn to pull their robot out of its numbered cardboard box. Most teams chose to travel through the asteroid belt on the first course, popping balloons with pointy objects affixed to the front of their robots. Applause filled the room, as teams experienced both successes and failures. “The Jaguar Awakens” team was eager to share about their experience.
From Natcher Elementary, “The Jaguar Awakens” team included eight students, a parent volunteer as coach, and one team member’s sibling acting as a mascot. At their school, all students in the Gifted and Talented program are invited to participate in the contest. They worked together to build the robot, starting in January of this year. The team took advantage of the opportunity to practice running the course at WKU prior to the event and had a lot of fun throughout the whole process. They especially enjoyed building and naming the robot, as well as having a team pizza party the night before the competition. Impressive students, these team members are busy at school and in the community—many team members are not only in the GAT program, but they are involved with Beta club, cross country, competitive jump rope, academic team, and more. Like most kids, they love lunch and recess, but they also have high ambitions for the future. The team, like many others, experienced their share of successes and failures throughout the competition.
On their first run, “The Jaguar Awakens” robot managed to pop one asteroid balloon; however, the robot then got off track. Hitting the wall and almost flipping, the team did not make it through to attack Darth Vader on the Death Star course. After their rocky start, they were able to make a comeback on the second course, touching Anakin for 100 points.
The scoreboard went up halfway through the day (EIT Division winners: Johnson Homeschool team, PE Division winners: Drakes Creek team), but regardless of their places, everyone at the competition had something to learn—and not just the competition participants. WKU engineering students also had an opportunity to learn and give back to the community. By facilitating an event like this, they helped expose younger children to some of their own passions and continued to build a presence for their department in the Bowling Green community. Participating teams learned a great deal about working together and adapting to new situations, as they made adjustments to their robots in between rounds. As one team frantically tried to tweak their robot before their next run, chasing after the robot as it rode right out the door, one team member laughed and said what may accurately explain the positive attitude of the entire competition: “We had the most fun; I don’t care how we placed!” After all, as WKU engineering emphasizes, learning doesn’t come from test scores, but from fun, hands-on experiences.