Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

Local News

April 24, 2011

Lego maniacs

Students prepare for national competition with prosthetic limb, robot they created

ASHLAND — They started with bits and pieces in plastic tackle boxes.

With a little ingenuity, they assembled the parts into a table-top robot capable of performing complex tasks.

With their robot they won two contests and now are headed for a national competition.

They are the Lego Barbarians, a team of middle school science and engineering enthusiasts, and they made their robot out of Lego bricks, the same children’s building toy that litters living room floors everywhere.

“I just came here thinking, ‘This is going to be fun; we’ll be playing with Legos,’” said Tanner Sexton, a Russell seventh-grader.

“This is more than just Legos though. There’s a lot of science and engineering and math.”

Which is just the point, said Jim Reneau, who is the team’s coach and cheerleader. Children are pretty much addicted to snapping the tiny interlocking bricks together, so why not harness the addiction to the increasingly important disciplines of math and science?

“If you want to get kids interested young, you have to get the seed planted, get the hook set in the mouth. What better way than with Legos?” Reneau asked.

When they get to their national competition in St. Louis next week, the Barbarians will have the same set of tasks as other middle-school teams: to maneuver their robot around a table tennis-sized platform and perform a series of tasks that simulate medical procedures — blood screening, nerve mapping, stent insertion, cardiac patching and the like.

The challenge, and the fun, comes in designing the robot and programming it to do the jobs without being pushed or nudged by human hands.

They have 21⁄2 minutes to run their routine and judges will evaluate the robot’s design and how well it solves problems.

There’s a separate part of the competition that doesn’t involve Legos. Each team has to come up with a solution to a real-world medical problem. The Barbarians read up on the high cost and difficulty of providing prosthetic limbs to third-world countries.

They built one themselves, mainly from cast-off materials like a length of bamboo and a 2-liter pop bottle, which they swathed in auto-body fiberglass.

They don’t claim it’s pretty or that it would be an ideal longterm prosthetic, but they do believe it met their primary objective of building a cheap, usable leg for temporary use.

The competition was devised by First Lego League, a nonprofit organization founded in 1989 to inspire children to learn and use science.

“It’s good to see math and science related to real problems,” said eighth-grader Anna Reneau. “A lot of people don’t see math and science as important after school. But in the real world you have to use math every day.”

However, the mission is broader, Jim Reneau said. Through the competition children learn what he calls the value of “gracious professionalism.” It means teams can compete vigorously without animosity.

That has done more for the students than playing with robots, he believes. “I’ve watched these kids grow from sniveling snot-noses to a bunch of adults I’m proud of,” he beamed.

The team is sponsored by the Greenup County 4-H Extension Service. Traditionally identified with farm and field, 4-H increasingly has been focusing on technology, said extension agent Kathy Junker. “The whole country is moving toward STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs,” she said.

The Lego competition also incorporates many aspects of youth development, also core components of 4-H, she said.

Other team members include Samantha Spence, Tanner Sexton, Lane McKenzie, Michael Nestor, Derick Tompkins, Taylor Hsieh and Dylan Cox.

The website thebarbarians.org contains pictures and diagrams of team’s robot and prosthetic leg.

MIKE JAMES can be reached at mjames@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2652.

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