Foundation Academy builds award-winning robotics program
| 7:04 a.m. February 26, 2015
West Orange Times & Observer
WINTER GARDEN — Not even three years ago, Foundation Academy introduced its first robotics class for middle-school students. Next month, one of its two teams will go to a state robotics competition, putting it among the top 48 teams among 538 in Florida.
Team Elite Ostriches, coached by Jessica Sullivan, Sean Fitzpatrick and Shannon Albertson, won first place in core values Feb. 7 at the FIRST LEGO League Regional Tournament, advancing to the FIRST LEGO League State Competition held March 8 at the University of Central Florida.
“They’ve been working with robotics, some of them, for three years,” said Albertson, their instructor at Foundation. “When we first started the program, we decided to participate in the FIRST LEGO League program. LEGO has these competitions across the nation, and we decided to use their rules and program as our curriculum.”
The other middle-school team, Mystified, won the Judges’ Award at that tournament. Albertson coached that team also, with Billie Holmes.
“The first year, they won an award for core values, which is teamwork, spirit of cooperation, helping other teams, mentoring, but did not advance,” Albertson said. “Last year, we advanced a team to regionals, and this year, we advanced two teams to regionals. In a very short time, they’re receiving success for all of the hard work.”
For her part, Albertson received the FIRST LEGO League Outstanding Mentor Award.
“I feel like it’s more a reflection of them,” she said. “They walked around to the teams and talked to the teams, and the teams elected someone that was their mentor and coach and what they meant to them. I think for middle-schoolers to speak highly of an adult and appreciate what an adult is doing for them is a reflection of their character.”
Each August, FIRST LEGO officials unveils robotic challenges for teams such as Albertson’s. Teams order kits and receive rules and a “brick,” a square covered in LEGOs that is the robot’s brain.
“They take that brain and add attachments, wheels and all the gears and motors they need and read the rules to accomplish the task on the table, and they get so many points,” Albertson said. “There’s also a unique aspect to this robotics program in that there’s a core values section and a project section. There’s a lot of community focus.”
Community focus was part of this year’s challenge: how to make learning easier and more fun.
“We decided that we all like to play sports, but we realized that a lot of other kids really want to play sports but don’t have the fundamentals down,” Elite Ostrich Jonathan Richardson said. “We decided that we would come up with a series of sports balls, where basically you put your hand on the ball, and it would help you learn the positioning through muscle memory. We decided to use more sensors, so if you put your hand on the ball and continuously throw it correctly, then when you get to a real game, it’s just going to be natural.”
Placement of hands on any object in sports or even manual labor is key to mastering technique, one of the best ways brains learn and remember, which the teams tried incorporating into their product, Albertson said.
“They have a cool name for it, Sports Hands, and a slogan, ‘It’s all about the hands,’” Albertson said.
For the FIRST LEGO challenge, the teams had to incorporate presentation, cooperation, public speaking, manufacturer calls and coach interviews to ensure product viability, she said.
“They have a program on the computer, Mindstorms, a drag-and-drop program,” she said. “I love it because it’s kind of pictorial; they love it because it’s kind of like a game. It’s dragging and dropping move cubes down, and they use those to communicate to the robot how to move. They’re actually having to sequence series of steps to get the robot down the board and accomplish some of these challenges.”
Challenges include pulling up objects, taking them to home base, hanging them on poles and using color sensors to read colors and decide the proper color key to remove, Albertson said. The team programs its robot to follow lines using an ultrasonic sensor and shoot and throw balls. They used judges’ feedback to reprogram their robot and make it sturdier, more effective and efficient.
“When we started, we struggled to listen to each other’s ideas, but they came up with a system to respect each other and make sure all ideas are heard and everyone has a chance to address strengths and weaknesses,” Albertson said. “That’s an important life skill to build.”
Foundation Academy started its high-school robotics program this year, under the direction of teacher Brad Bales, who is also new to the school and coached the class at the FIRST Tech Challenge. None of these high-schoolers has had previous robotics experience.
“We showed up at the competition and couldn’t even get it to move hardly, because we were having some programming problems,” team member Stephen Coon said. “The people that already have experience helped us out. It was as simple as connecting a simple cord, and we were through. We kind of winged it, and we had a pretty good design. We actually ended up winning our first two matches, so we were in first place. Then we dropped down to third, and then, I think, at the end of the day, we were in 10th. That’s pretty good for our first time. We basically went from nothing in the beginning of the year to this.”
“This” is a robot that might not have as sleek of an exterior as a Tyco remote-control car but functions in a similar manner, using an Xbox controller and a brick brain like that of the middle-school teams. The brain connects to the controller via Bluetooth and programs by the students so the robot can move, which excited the team when it did the first time — the day of the competition. Now, after a bit of a redesign, the robot has separate wheel functions to enable turns, braking and relatively quick movement forward and backward.
“We’re trying to mount some kind of launcher on the top of it so it can launch ping-pong balls or golf balls,” Stephen said.
Tasks like the middle-school competition were part of the Tech Challenge, such as grabbing and lifting objects to put them in tubes.
“They have four robots out there at a time, and you get paired up with another team, so it’s two against two, and there’s a little mission that has to be accomplished,” Bales said. “The one thing that was most impressive is watching them coordinate with the other team and get a strategy together.”
At both levels, the class has been a great tool for students to apply math and science concepts, Albertson said.
“The key to the class and their success has been not really telling them what to do but just mentoring them and questioning them and prompting them to think about it,” she said. “That has made them better thinkers and better engineers.