Monkton inventors clinch award

MONKTON — After winging the first round of an applied science competition in November, a group of young inventors from Monkton honed their programming skills, fine-tuned their robot construction techniques and brainstormed solutions to real-world problems.
Then, earlier this month, the team of 10 Monkton students impressed judges yet again, winning the award for best rookie team at the regional championship for the 2011 First Lego League Robotics Competition. The youngsters — spread across grades four through nine at Monkton Central School and Mount Abraham Union High School — made their coaches and their community proud.
“The kids were great. They were well prepared and very professional. We’re very proud of them,” said Kelly Pierpont, a fifth-grade teacher at Monkton and co-coach of the team.
Since September, the Monkton students have prepared for this competition in their spare time: creating and programming an autonomous robot made of Legos and inventing a prototype lunchbox to protect food from contamination — a solution to a food contamination hazard they identified as part of the competition.
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.
The Monkton students, which called themselves the Dynamic Designers, programmed their custom-built robot to accomplish specific missions, designed a lunchbox to keep food out of a high-contamination temperature zone and created a unique skit.
At the regional championship Dec. 3 in Manchester, N.H., 50 teams showed up, and according to Pierpont, it was a much bigger deal than the qualifying round the previous month in Hanover, N.H. Announcers belted out play-by-plays while the kids competed. And laser shows, music and dancing filled the day with fun for teams that weren’t actively participating.
But at the end of the day, there was only one spot open for the national championship, and it didn’t go to the Dynamic Designers.
In their first year, however, the Monkton crew exceeded expectations, winning their first contest at Dartmouth College and taking home one of just 15 awards given to teams.
“I learned that we’re actually quite capable,” said Pierpont.
She explained that in the future the team would likely take a different approach to the competition. For one, the team was maxed out at 10 members. Pierpont explained that a smaller team makes cooperation easier and more manageable. The really successful teams, she said, were smaller. Next year, Pierpont hopes that a greater number of smaller teams will enter the competition, rather than one large team.
Another area where the team could improve, said Pierpont, is in robotics programming. So after winter break, the team will hop back in the saddle, preparing for next year.
“The kids had a blast, but we were all exhausted after (the competition),” she said. “So we’re going to take a break, and then in January we’re gong to start working with the robot and getting our skills sharper in that area.”
Looking to next year, the Monkton students already know that the competition will revolve around helping seniors, but they won’t know the specific problem they’re tasked with solving until autumn.
In the meantime, Pierpont hopes that more Vermont teams will form.
“I don’t know if Vermont will have its own competition,” she said. “But I’m hoping Vermont will have more teams.”
She’d like to see teams compete with each other. Perhaps, there will someday be enough Vermont teams to form a Lego robot league.
The one problem, Pierpont acknowledged, is that the materials and technology for this endeavor are expensive. The team didn’t get any funding from local schools, and it isn’t actually affiliated with Monkton Central, although the school did let the students use its rooms to make preparations. Fortunately for the Monkton students, a generous parent donation funded this year’s event.
By next year, said Pierpont, the team hopes to find a corporate sponsor.
“It’s expensive — that’s the hard part,” she said.
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected]

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