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Wining One Block at a Time

H-B Woodlawn LEGO robotics team competes in state championships

LEGO may be a Danish abbreviation for “play well”, but students at H-B Woodlawn have used the toy blocks to create a functioning robot, and in the process generated innovative ways to preserve the world’s oceans.

The H-B Woodlawn LEGO Robotics team finished in second place at the Northern Virginia regional tournament two weeks ago and participated in the state championships on Dec. 4.

The team, nicknamed the “Shark Bytes,” won first place in the research project portion of the regional tournament, which was held on Nov. 20 at Eagle Ridge Middle School in Ashburn.

At the state championships, held at Virginia Tech, the team improved upon its previous scores, but did not win any awards in the competitive 66-team field.

The theme of this year’s international competition was “Ocean Odyssey,” and groups presented methods to promote ocean conservation. During the competition the robot performed ocean-themed missions, such as rescuing a toy dolphin, recovering sunken treasure and protecting a pumping station.

Eight students, aged 11-13, spent more than eight weeks designing and building their robot, which consists of 150 different LEGO blocks and gears. The robot is approximately 8 inches long and 4 inches wide, possesses three motors to move its wheels and manipulate its arms and has three sensors to guide its navigation.

“This was such a creative bunch of kids,” said Andrew Tarr, who mentored the team, which included his son Harrison. “They took it very seriously and every kid was involved and contributed.”

TEAMS WERE JUDGED in four separate categories: robot performance, robot design, teamwork and the research project. In the regional tournament the H-B Woodlawn group finished fifth of eight teams in the robot obstacle course, but their research project so impressed judges that they accumulated enough points to be invited to the championships.

The obstacle course was held on a 5-foot by 10-foot field, and the robot had to maneuver around LEGO obstacles and perform the ocean-themed tasks. In the regional tournament the robot struggled to put up a flag without running over it, said Maliek Wilson, a seventh-grader at H-B Woodlawn. But in the championships the robot was able to perform a greater number of tasks, Tarr said.

“Sometimes these robots don’t go the way you think they are going,” Tarr said. “It’s difficult to control the size of their turns.”

What impact fishing has on the shark population was the focus of the team’s research project. The students concocted a device to be placed on large fishing nets that would repel sharks by emitting a chemical. For the presentation, the students devised a mock newscast to portray how various industries and individuals are directly impacted by sharks.

“We were working since day one on the project and came in during weekends and after school,” Wilson said.

Besides improving their engineering techniques and learning how to write better programs, the students discovered the importance of teamwork, Tarr said.

“The kids learned that each person has a different approach to a problem and all of them are valid,” Tarr said. “They learned that if they listen to each other they can come up with something better than they can do on their own.”

Though the team will not be bringing any medals back to Arlington, the students exceeded their expectations and had fun competing, Tarr said.

“The awards are not the important part for the kids,” he added. “They were excited that their robot performed well and they all want to come back next year.”