This year at The Gregory School FIRST LEGO LEAGUE was added to the list of exciting Friday Exploration offerings for Middle School students. Founded by inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen, FIRST LEGO LEAGUE (FLL) is a competition challenging youth to solve real-world problems through the application of science, technology, engineering, and math. Each year, an inspiring theme is presented to teams around the world as a basis for challenging robotic missions and a research project. This year’s theme was: Into Orbit! In addition to designing and building a robot and completing a research project, teams of 2 - 10 members work alongside mentors to gain the valuable skills of collaboration, communication, and leadership through the practice of FLL Core Values. The TGS FLL team this year consisted of: Addison O’Brien (6th grade), Axel Lehmann (7th grade), Elizabeth Williams (5th grade), and Ethan Ariola (5th grade). The separately judged Robot Game, Core Values, and Research Project provide each team member the opportunity to practice a wide-range of essential skills.
The Robot Game is comprised of multiple missions constructed by the team, and contributes to one third of the overall score. Each model must be precisely assembled according to plan to ensure accurate operation. Missions might involve dropping off a payload, lifting a lever, or pushing a switch. Different missions have assigned point values, so teams develop their own strategy for getting as many points as possible in a 2 minute and 30 second timeframe.
A robot must be designed, built, and programmed to complete any missions the team identifies in their Robot Game strategy. The TGS team decided to focus on several missions located closely together on the board so as not to use valuable time travelling larger distances from the allowed starting point (Base). Additionally, 3 of the missions they selected required their robot to drop off and launch a series of payloads to the same location just outside of Base. They earned points on their Robot Design for efficient programming to repeat this delivery-launch challenge! The team also engineered an arm to complete 2 separate missions in one program; again earning them overall design points.
The TGS FLL team became known as The Spice Cadets because of their creative Research Project, including an innovative solution to an interesting problem. The research assignment for this year’s Into Orbit theme was to identify physical or psychological challenges humans face with long duration space exploration. An initial interest in understanding factors affecting plant growth in contained environments led the team on a research expedition to Biosphere 2. Katie Morgan, a Research Biologist, explained the range of current plant research, from watering systems to nutrient delivery systems, and effects of types of light as a function of hours of exposure.
Further research at school led The Spice Cadets to a Scientific American article explaining the discomfort astronauts feel from nasal congestion due to reduced gravity, leading to a diminished sense of taste and bland tasting food. In connection with previous plant research, the team had the brainstorm that astronauts should grow a salsa garden to help spice up meals in low gravity environments. As we pursued this idea, we soon realized that the real problem lay in how the salsa would actually be prepared in space. Freshly grown veggies could not simply be placed on a cutting board and sliced, but an electric food processing device would draw valuable energy. The team found an existing hand chopper, but decided the opening to get the salsa out of the container was large enough to be a problem in a zero-gravity environment.
Over a period of several weeks, the team worked through multiple iterations of how to reduce the size of the container opening, while still allowing the chopping plunger with blades to be removed from the device once the salsa was ready for consumption. Inspiration came in the form of folding dry-wall butterfly hooks. The collapsable blades could hold rigid in one direction while chopping ingredients, but could easily fold when the user was ready to remove the plunger to enjoy the salsa. With the help of Mr. Conner in the Fab Lab, The Spice Cadets 3-D printed several prototypes of their innovative components, including a threaded lid with removable chopping plunger and replaceable spout with cap for easy salsa dispensing!
In addition to the Robot Game and Research Project, The Spice Cadets completed a teamwork challenge and interview. FLL Core Values are an essential part of the overall experience, and contribute to the final third of the team score. Throughout the season, the team worked together to complete tasks, discover new skills and ideas, include each other, solved problems in innovative ways, and had fun! The judges commented in particular that The Spice Cadets were “respectful of their team members’ opinions”, and indicated their team strength as Gracious Professionalism. The Spice Cadets were one of only seven Tucson teams to advance to the State Tournament, to be held in January, 2019. Way to go Spice Cadets!
The Gregory School is a special place encouraging children to play, problem solve, and pursue passions through project based learning experiences and opportunities. These passions foster a sense of purpose seen in the diverse accomplishments of students and alumni.Jennifer DeBenedetti, M.Ed.