The Science of Lego

The Science of Lego


Mark Vanderlyn will teach a class on building Lego robots at the First Lego League at Ashburn Library, 43316 Hay Road, Ashburn, 6:30-8:30 p.m. Participants will construct a robot out of Legos then learn how to program it to perform simple tasks. Recommended for ages 12-18. Advance registration required, at or call the library at 703-737-8100, Ext. 4.

Introduce yourself:

My name is Mark Vanderlyn. I am a registered architect and father of four children. I graduated from Virginia Tech and have lived in the Washington area for the last seven years. I recently moved to Loudoun from Reston.

What are Lego robots?

Lego robotics was developed from a joint venture between Lego corporation and the MIT media lab in an effort to get children more interested in science and technology. Lego robots are self-powered, autonomous, programmable robotic toys built using the Lego mindstorm and NXT robotic systems. They are a combination of the familiar Lego bricks, as well as sensors, motors, gears and a programmable microprocessor. Most robot parts are from the two robotics kits, but any Lego bricks may be added to the robot.

How did you get started making Lego robots?

I first became involved with these robots through the First Lego League competition. My oldest daughter, who was in fifth grade at the time, joined a team sponsored by her school’s PTA. The first year there were three teams sponsored by the school. The program gained momentum with five teams the second year. I volunteered to help coach an all-girls team that year, called the Capitol Girls, which won regional awards and qualified to compete at the state level competition in Blacksburg, Va. I have continued working with Lego teams and am currently coaching a team with my two of my children. This is my fifth year coaching first Lego league teams.

What do you enjoy most about making them?

First Lego competition involves building a robot, programming it to solve a variety of challenges on a special challenge mat. The obstacles and challenges are changed every year. They go along with a theme that the children are required to research and creatively present to the judges. Last year’s theme was nanotechnology and our team performed a skit to demonstrate their understanding of how nanotechnology can be used to improve modern lives. Their particular focus was how it could be used to fight cancer. This year’s challenge will involve alternative energy sources, but the specific topic and robot challenges will be announced in September. The children will then have eight weeks to do the research, build the robot, program it to solve as many of the challenges on the playing field as possible in two minutes and present their research creatively to a panel of judges. They will also be interviewed and scored on teamwork, robot design, as well as the points earned on the robot challenge runs. The First Lego League encourages science, research and gracious professionalism.

Do you design the robot ahead of time or work it out as you go along?

The Lego kits have several basic robot designs to get you started. Once these have been mastered, you can change things to adapt the robot to the specific tasks that are needed. Also you can build attachments such as sweeping arms, dumpers, bumpers, etc. The kits also come with light sensors, so the robots can follow lines, sound sensors, touch sensors, rotation sensors and ultrasonic sensors to detect proximity to other items. These sensors help you to navigate the course. Much of robot design becomes trial and error as you see if your robot can perform the required tasks and you change either the programming or the design itself in order to improve the robot’s performance.

What is the most important thing to take into consideration in your robot design?

One of the most important considerations in the robot design is structural stability. Next you need to think about your drive train to determine if you need strength or speed more. Access to the microprocessor is important to be able to change batteries and connect new attachments and sensors. These often need to be changed during the two minute competition to perform the variety of tasks you are given.

What is the most challenging part of making the robot?

The most challenging part of making the robot is to make it perform consistently. They are a bit temperamental and can be affected by battery strength, size of programming memory storage, position the robot is placed on the board and the acuity of the sensors. Because it is a toy system you don’t always get consistent performance from the sensors or motors.

What is your favorite robot that you’ve made?

Last year’s team robot was my favorite. The kid’s got best robot design at state and highest table performance score in the younger division at state.

What will the class entail?

The Summer Teen Lego Robotics classes offered at most of the Loudoun libraries once this summer are designed to introduce kids to the excitement of Lego robotics and the First Lego League competitions. The classes consist of an introduction to the systems and the First Lego League. After this the class is divided into two teams, which compete to devise a strategy and build and program a Lego robot to maneuver a small obstacle course. The class is two hours long. The recommended ages for the class are 12-18.

How can people get involved in the construction of Lego robots?

Anyone who is interested in Lego Robotics can purchase a Lego NXT robotics kit at most toy stores. I have seen them in the Toys R Us and Target stores in the Dulles area. The cost is around $300.

What are the Lego League competitions?

Information on First Lego League can be found on the Internet at At least two schools in the area have incorporated this into their curriculum. At Eagle Ridge Middle School, where my daughter attends, the eighth-grade Spectrum class forms a team and enters the competition, although no after-school teams are currently available there. In Fairfax County where we last lived, the school PTO’s sponsored many teams. My current team, the Ashburn Robotics: RCX-treme, is an independent team. Anyone who is interested in organizing an independent team just needs to register with First Lego, the fees are listed on the Web site, and purchase a team kit, which includes instruction on how to build a competition board, the competition mat, the robot kit and the Lego pieces to construct the challenges, as well as helpful tips and information on the competition. The team maximum is 10 kids. The age range is for division 1 ages 9-11. For division 2 ages 12-14.