The tiny, lunar-rover-like robot grasps the compact disc in its hand and wheels its way over to the plastic case laying flat on the table. It hesitates for a moment, processing what to do next, then sets the disc in the center of the case.
It is a small feat for a human being but one giant leap for the students in HB Woodlawn High School's Lego Robotics team, dubbed "Insert Name Here", a team that finished among the top three in Northern Virginia's first Lego League Tournament. The team of 11 members, including the coaches, will take the electronic field again Dec. 5 at Virginia Tech for the state championships.
The competition, according to coach Andrew Tarr, is aimed at getting students interested in engineering and applied science.
"This is a real exercise in teamwork and problem solving and it gets them thinking about other ideas too," he said.
FOR EXAMPLE, TARR SAID, students on the team began using their new found engineering expertise to dream up ways to make the school more accessible to people with disabilities.
"They had some good ideas like fixing the elevator, creating rules for the stairs so that one flight is used to go up and another to go down and then they came up with this forklift style idea to lift people up the stairs," he said.
The HB Woodlawn team also won an award during its last tournament for robot design and performance.
"I like this because you get to be creative and you work to solve different problems, some that are really tough," said Ben Hubbert, an HB Woodlawn seventh grader.
"Right now, our gear train is becoming a problem, the part that determines how far it goes when it moves," he said. "It keeps going different distances each time but we're already working on it."
"It's really difficult," said Harrison Tarr, Andrew Tarr’s son who joined the team even though he is a student at Ashlawn Elementary.
"Everyone had some really good ideas for how to make the robot achieve its goals but we couldn't use all of them," he said. "We're still perfecting some parts of it, like putting the CD in the case."
The competition consists of nine simple tasks the robots must complete in order to win. The performance is evaluated by the judges, who then assign them a score. The tasks range from something as simple as retrieving a pair of glasses, to complex duties like carrying a tray of food to a table without spilling any of it or shooting a miniature basketball through a hoop.
YET SUCCESS IS ELUSIVE because the students have little control over the robot itself.
Rather than piloting it like a remote-controlled car or plane, the robot is pre-programmed by the students to undertake each goal. An array of sensors, guidance systems and other parts — all installed and programmed by the students — help the robot get where it wants to go and do what it needs to do.
Ben Hubbert, 12, said being on the team has sparked an interest in engineering that he wants to pursue later in life. Harrison Tarr said much the same. It's the creative problem solving the two enjoy because it's so puzzling.
"We're putting on a navigation system that is going to make it even better," Harrison Tarr said. "We're pretty confident."
The word Lego comes from a Danish phrase "Leg Godt", which means "play well.” The tiny blocks were invented in the early 1930s by Ole Kirk Christiansen, a master carpenter and joiner in the village of Billund, Denmark.