Popular movies, cartoons, and science fiction novels often paint a picture of a world where robots become human-like and take over the world. In Surry County, middle school students are taking over robots and learning to program them to solve real-world challenges—all while competing against other area middle school students.
For the first time last year middle school students from Surry County and Mount Airy City Schools had the opportunity to participate in robotics competition under the North Carolina FIRST LEGO League (FLL), thanks to a partnership between the school systems and several local businesses, led by SouthData, Inc.
This year, Elkin City Schools has joined the alliance, adding more teams to the mix.
Surry FLL kicked off its regular season recently at Central Middle School in Dobson with a scrimmage among teams from Elkin, Meadowview and Central middle schools. A second scrimmage was hosted by Mount Airy Middle School on Nov. 14, featuring teams from Gentry, Pilot Mountain and Mount Airy middle schools.
A county-wide FIRST LEGO League (FLL) tournament is slated for Dec. 14 in the gymnasium on the campus of Surry Community College. Last year’s competition was as intense as any local athletic competition with team members, parents, grandparents, school officials and community members cheering for their favorites. With a year of experience behind them, organizers expect the December tournament to be even bigger and better.
The FLL project grew locally last year from discussions between Surry County Schools and SouthData Inc. concerning how schools and businesses can partner to improve STEM initiatives through implementation of a robotics program. SouthData agreed to be the principal corporate sponsor and Mount Airy City Schools quickly jumped on board. SouthData recruited Insteel Industries, Inc., Advanced Electronic Services, Inc., NCFI Polyurethanes, Northern Hospital of Surry County, and Renfro Corporation to join the project. All have enthusiastically agreed to continue that sponsorship this school year. The Surry Economic Development Partnership has agreed to act as the “umbrella” organization for Surry FLL which allows donations to be tax deductible.
“We as a company wanted to do something that would benefit the local educational system,” according to John Springthorpe III, president of SouthData. Springthorpe said he was especially interested in becoming involved in a project designed to stimulate interest in STEM subjects since employers frequently experience shortages of qualified candidates in those areas.
“The FIRST LEGO League is an extracurricular activity for students where they compete in building a LEGO robot, which has to be programmed to perform various tasks,” Springthorpe explained. “The participants are judged based on the robot design, a science project, teamwork and presentation. The competition stimulates learning in a hands-on and exciting environment, which helps the students discover new career possibilities and develop skills that will last a lifetime.”
Local Surry FIRST LEGO League (Surry FLL) teams are associated with a state and national organization called FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) which has partnered nationally with the LEGO Group to organize local, regional, state and national competitions annually. Teams of middle school students, fueled by their imaginations and their increasing knowledge of math, science, engineering, and technology, will be guided by a teacher-coach to prepare for a national “challenge” using a programmable robot built from LEGO blocks (yes, those colorful blocks kids played with as a child).
Each Surry FLL team must solve the same nationally developed challenge within specific guidelines but how they do it is up the team. Teams earn points in competition for succeeding at various aspects of the challenge. Last year’s challenge involved helping senior citizens cope with everyday tasks that have become difficult due to aging. This year’s challenge, called Nature’s Fury, involves the timely issue of natural disasters, such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and tornadoes and how they impact people living in the areas of devastation.
The competition is not all about robotics competition, although that is the segment that is most visible and exciting for spectators. In addition, community experts are asked to serve as trained judges, using national rubrics, to rate student teams in the areas of core values, a research project, and robot design. The idea, of FLL, according to the national organization, is not only to allow students to design, build, test, and program robots to solve a universal problem, but also to encourage students to apply real-world math and science concepts, to research challenges facing today’s scientists, and to learn critical thinking, team-building, and presentation skills.
Each middle school in Surry County Schools, Mount Airy City Schools, and now Elkin City Schools, is fielding at least two teams this fall, thanks to funding from the local corporate sponsors. Students will compete on a local and regional level and—if they qualify—may go on to compete at the state level and nationally. Trained teachers at each school serve as coaches, and Pam Colbert, principal of Elkin Middle, serves as a coach for the two teams at Elkin Middle School.
Schools leaders and corporate sponsors worked hard again during the summer recruiting mentors, ordering LEGO kits, building regulation-size competition tables, and getting the word out to interested students. Mentors come from the sponsoring businesses and meet regularly with their assigned teams. Mentors will also offer student teams the opportunity to visit their places of business during the school year in order to allow students to see that what they are learning through the FIRST LEGO League has applications in the world of work right here in Surry County.
To learn more about the program at your child’s school, contact the principal of the middle school a child attends. For additional information about the North Carolina FIRST competition, go to www.ncfirstrobotics.org. For the Surry FLL website, visit http://surryfll.org/.