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Robots rock FIRST Lego competition in Windham

Union Leader Correspondent

December 03. 2017 9:29PM
Ben Sears, left, and Tynan Lucey of the Dover-based Belknap Bots team participate Sunday morning in the FIRST Lego League State Championship at Windham High School. (CHRIS GAROFOLO/Union Leader Correspondent)

During Sunday’s FIRST LEGO League State Championship at Windham High School, nearly 50 teams from across New Hampshire competed to have their LEGO creations solve a set of missions on an obstacle course set on a thematic playing surface. Some of the objectives included removing a broken water pipe, removing sludge and filtering water. (CHRIS GAROFOLO/Union Leader Correspondent)

WINDHAM — Just shy of 50 teams gathered at Windham High School on Sunday morning, armed with colorful robots and creative minds, to put their problem-solving skills to the test and help develop a new method to find, transport and use water.

Hundreds of students packed the high school for the FIRST Lego League State Championship, fighting for the right to represent New Hampshire in the global finals, with the upcoming tournament held in Detroit.

Teams, with Granite State children between the ages of 9-16 years old, have been working on the challenge since August when FIRST Lego released the mission, based on a real-world scientific topic. And after eight intense weeks of competition, knocking 140 teams down to 49 for Sunday, the season culminated with a combative tournament.

“The kids love it. You could walk around today and see the energy and the enthusiasm; not only playing with the Legos, but the whole research component of it where they have to come up with a solution to a problem,” said Brian Belley, a BAE Systems employee and FIRST Lego League affiliate partner. “This year’s theme is all around hydro dynamics, which has to do with water. And we’ve had teams in the past that come to this and they file patents … these kids are doing amazing, amazing things.”

The weekend tournament was sponsored by BAE Systems, Inc., the company supplied roughly 70 volunteers for the event. Belley remembers competing in similar events during his school days and credits BAE for helping lift-up robotics teams across the country.

“I was actually from this program myself, I was a FIRST participant, came on through the internship program and now I’m trying to give back,” he said. “BAE System has actually a lot of recruiting that comes from FIRST, so a lot of students will start in the FIRST Lego League program and graduate to the robotics when they’re in high school and then we’ll take them as interns and bring them into BAE Systems all over the country and hopefully on as full-time hires.”

The Windham gymnasium turned into a makeshift battle arena for the robotics teams, complete with a dimly-lit atmosphere accompanied by rocking music. The high school stands were filled with cheering parents, some watching the progress on two big screens over the playing fields for a better view.

Teams competed, using their own robotics creations, in a series of missions on an obstacle course set on a thematic playing surface. Players were judged on their overall project, robot design and core values (including teamwork and sportsmanship) while attempting to replace and construct new pipes in the obstacle course, along with other missions.

Seventeen-year-old Maddie Boyer, a senior at Concord’s Bishop Brady High School and member of the ROUS Robotics team, was with other students offering a demonstration of their eye-catching, four-wheeled robot that moves smoothly and comes with a piece of PVC piping that can shoot balls at a target.

The Bishop Brady team was showing what else the FIRST competitions can offer once younger students move on from the Lego league. FIRST has multiple other technology-based competitions, some of which offer millions of dollars in college scholarships.

“When I started at a young age, I learned a lot more skills — definitely there’s a mechanical side, teamwork (and) communication skills that I think are critical for kids,” she said.

But the day was not focused on just pipe replacement on a course.

For the Hydro Dynamics Challenge, the sponsors collaborated with Lego Education, DEKA Research & Development, Washington State University and the Institute for Water, Environment & Health at United Nations University to create a challenge for improving the distribution and disposal methods for water systems worldwide.

More than 235,000 children from 90 countries have used the program to seek improvements for the human water cycle.

The Hanover-based team, with the acronym WATER, each letter comes from the word “water” in five different languages, created an app (H2gO) that can examine the quality of the water and providing the user with information about possible contaminants and a community water map.

It also offers recommendations if there is an issue with the water supply.

“One big problem is that people usually don’t know if their water is clean or not, and so we decided to make an app that can tell what contaminants are in your water and if it’s OK to drink or not,” said Sora Shirai, one of the WATER team members.

The user may put water onto a Petri dish and let any natural items grow before snapping a picture of it with the app, said Seth Graubert, also with WATER.

“The app identities what bacteria it is,” he said. “It’s really fun, but also we’re doing something and learning something. It’s not like you’re just at home playing video games.”

By the end of the day, Hollis Thunder, of Hollis, topped both the robot performance and the champion’s award. The team will advance to the finals in the Motor City.

Flow Distortion, of Hampstead, won second place in robot performance while the Wisdom Hunters, of Nashua, and hometown favorites Blue Box, of Windham, took home second and third respectively in the champion’s award.

The FIRST Lego League was created in 1998 to get children interested in the STEM fields, meaning science, technology, engineering and mathematics. For nearly two decades, the league has held tournaments to encourage high-quality work from future STEM students before they go on to higher education.

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