Young inventors find winning formula

MONKTON — Imagine if kids were the ones testing the boundaries of technology. Imagine if they were programming artificial intelligence into robots they built themselves. And imagine if, when widespread problems arose, students invented products to solve them.
Since September, a team of 10 Monkton youths has done just that: created and programmed an autonomous robot made of Legos and invented a prototype lunchbox to protect food from contamination in preparation for the 2011 First Lego League Robotics Competition.
The students — spread across grades four through nine at Monkton Central School and Mount Abraham Union High School — last weekend won the qualifying round in the competition in Hanover, N.H., qualifying them for the regional championship in Manchester, N.H., on Dec. 3.
“I am very proud of the kids,” said Kelly Pierpont, a fifth-grade teacher at Monkton and co-coach of the team. “We were number one overall (in the first round).”
The First Lego League Robotics Competition encompasses more than 200,000 nine-to-16-year-olds from more than 55 countries. The focus of this year’s contest is food safety, and it’s split into three parts: a robot mission course, a prototype product unveiling and a skit to explain each group’s research methods.
In New Hampshire the Monkton team, which called itself the Dynamic Designers, was judged by a group of Dartmouth College engineering and physics professors.
“They were very impressed with our research topic and how we carried it through to an actual solution and came up with a prototype product,” said Pierpont. “They were also very impressed with the kids’ teamwork.”
In this, their first year, the Monkton students and teachers never expected to make major headway at the competition. As the winners were announced at the end of the competition, the Monkton students had no idea they were the only team that fulfilled all of the requirements necessary to win.
“I’ve never been so surprised by anything in my entire life,” exclaimed Pierpont. “We had no expectation of walking away with an award and we were all in shock. The kids are very proud of themselves … and they’re very excited to move onto the next level.”
Back in September, the Monkton team’s first step in preparing for the competition was to identify a food-safety problem. To kick things off, the Monkton students met with Sherry Sawyer, Vermont Department of Health officer for most of Addison County.
“After taking the temperature of our bagged lunches,” said sixth-grader Aidan May, “Sherry Sawyer … said, ‘What I found to be interesting was that while lunch boxes are insulated and they do the job we ask them to … there is a great problem: When you put a hot food in and you put a cold food in, it’s not keeping your cold food cold, and it’s not keeping your hot food hot.”
The students had found their problem. But what could they do?
They decided to re-imagine the lunchbox.
“This is a revolutionary lunchbox that we made that keeps the (hot food) hot and the (cold food) cold,” said fourth-grader Max Konczal, proudly displaying the team’s prototype, which uses an insulated barrier to separate hot food from cold food. “In between 45-145 (degrees) the temperature (allows) the highest chance for bacteria growth,” he added.
The youngsters met three times a week after school and on weekends. As they designed a prototype product, the students began building a replica of the competition course using Legos. They then created a Lego robot to accomplish missions like harvesting Lego corn, picking up a big fish instead of a little fish, quarantining Lego bacteria, and removing a rat from a Lego storage compartment.
“The (robots) … all look very, very different,” said Monkton team co-coach Kevin Grace, a fifth-grade teacher at Monkton Central. “But the one thing all teams … share in common is an eight-foot by four-foot playing surface with these exact elements in the exact same place. How you decide to attack those missions is up to you as a team.”
The difficult part is telling the robot what to do beforehand.
“This is not a robot that you control via remote control,” said Grace. “It’s an autonomous robot. You hit start. You programmed it. The robot will follow the mission that you programmed it for. There’s no joystick. That’s the challenge of it.”
Using the Lego Mindstorm NXT programming system, the students configured the robot’s intelligence.
“They’re the ones who are responsible for programming those wheels and telling it where to go, how much they want the right wheel to move, how much they want the left wheel to go,” said Grace. “There’s also the ability to program it to tell colors, the ability to touch sense, to (discern) between pushing, touching and pulling. There are temperature sensors. How you use all of these features is up to you.”
Using their replica course, the students worked week-in and week-out, tweaking their robot’s programming to complete as many missions as possible within the competition’s 2.5-minute time frame. Last weekend, that work paid off.
 “All of our missions were done flawlessly. We just need to create more missions at this point,” said Pierpont.
But the countless hours spent collaborating and overcoming challenges have introduced the kids to much more than just the sweet taste of victory. During this time, Julianna Doherty, co-coach and Max Konczal’s mother, has watched the kids learn to rebound from failure, build self-confidence and taste the fruits of their labor.
“These kids get so excited to get it done,” she said. “They have these little missions and they work their tails off. They fail, fail, fail and then they get it, and it’s awesome.”
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected].

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