Robotics challenge 
teaches real-life science skills

Ray Zhao, 9, of Lake Zurich puts his hands up in excitement after his LEGO robot scored high marks going through a course during the First LEGO League’s Regional Tournament on Saturday at McHenry County College.
Ray Zhao, 9, of Lake Zurich puts his hands up in excitement after his LEGO robot scored high marks going through a course during the First LEGO League’s Regional Tournament on Saturday at McHenry County College.

CRYSTAL LAKE – Members of the Ctrl Alt Del team huddled over a corner practice table in the McHenry County College gym.

Fine-tuning their robot were West Dundee residents Joshua Campbell, 11, and his brother Jacob Campbell, 13, along with Hampshire residents Reese and Reagan Richter, 9 and 11, respectively, and Patrick Stephen, 11, of South Elgin.

“We are trying to fix hitting the balls, putting the flowers with the cornstalks and the lever cooperation,” said Reese as Patrick pulled a LEGO-based, battery-powered, software-packing gizmo back to base.

The boys were among youngsters participating Saturday in a regional FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) LEGO League competition, for which this year’s theme was “Senior Solutions.”

Each team built a small robot, varying in size from a bit smaller than a football to not much larger than a brick – albeit a brick with appendages.

“We can only use three motors, four sensors and one brain,” explained Patrick.

“It’s fun,” chimed in Reese.

Tournament participants came from throughout the area, including Batavia, Aurora, Chicago and Arlington Heights. Each team consisted of two to 10 boys and girls ages 9 to 14.

The teams were tasked in mid-September with designing, building and programming a robot as well as researching a project based on helping senior citizens solve problems.

“I’ve been doing this competition for five years,” said Mike Gaynor, an engineer who lives in Crystal Lake and who coordinates the regional FLL event. “From this competition, the top three scorers go on to the state competition.”

Gaynor said 12 teams participated Saturday. About 80 are expected at the state competition next month in Arlington Heights.

“When you look at what the kids have to do, it’s a lot like engineering,” said Gaynor, 48. “They have to prioritize which tasks to solve first and have to come up with different designs every year, different programs every year, and they only have eight weeks.”

The competition included several facets, including presentations to a panel of judges. But the main event was the robotic challenge, in which each team made four, two-and-a-half-minute attempts at manipulating their robot to complete as many assigned tasks as possible.

The robots were not remote-controlled, but were programmed to depart from a base point and complete tasks such as retrieving objects and pulling them back to base – without interference.

If a robot became stuck and had to be manually pulled back to base, points were lost.

“It’s real-world engineering on a level they can relate to,” said Patrick Stephen, also an engineer as well as a team coach and father of a competitor. “Things don’t work out how you think they’re going to, you have to solve for a lot of variables … it’s real life.”

The teams going to state are:

Next Generation 2.0


Mind Controllers

The following awards were also given:

Champion's award (1st place all around): Next Generation 2.0

Robot Design award: Mind Controllers

Project Award: Boom

Core Values Award: Huskies

Rookie team award: Bricksters

Table Performance award: Bricksters

Judge's award: Ctrl Alt Del


To learn more about FIRST LEGO League, visit firstlegoleague.org.

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