“If you build it, they will come.”

This classic quote from the movie Fields of Dreams could also be said to describe the Union Middle School robotics program, which continues to grow steadily. The middle school, like many others throughout the nation, is able to offer students opportunities to learn how to build and program robots through their participation in the FIRST LEGO League.
For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) is non-profit youth organization founded by Dean Kamen in 1989 designed to promote the importance of science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM as it is commonly referred to today. Kamen, perhaps best known as the creator of the Segway, was looking for a venue that would attract and engage the minds of young people, one that placed a high value on developing the collaborative skills needed to succeed in today’s workplace. Using robotics as a framework, FIRST has developed educational programs and competitions for students as young as six years old all the way up through high school.
Students in the Union Community School District have been involved in robotics competitions for several years now. While the robotics program at Union is not an officially sanctioned extracurricular activity, the district has supported it in a number of other ways. Providing classroom space for the robotics teams to meet and work on their projects and vehicles to transport teams to their competition locations are just a few examples of that support.
The steady growth of Union’s “Steel of the Knights” program resulted in enough interest in robotics to form four teams at Union Middle School this year to compete in the FIRST LEGO League program:
Every year, FIRST® LEGO League releases a Challenge, which is based on a real-world scientific topic.
Each Challenge has three parts: the Robot Game, the Project, and the Core Values. Teams of up to ten children, with at least two adult coaches, participate in the Challenge by programming an autonomous robot to score points on a themed playing field (Robot Game), developing a solution to a problem they have identified (Project), all guided by the FIRST LEGO League Core Values. Teams may then attend an official tournament, hosted by our FIRST LEGO League Partners.

There are four main ways teams earn points and advance in a FIRST LEGO League competition:
Project – Teams identify a problem related to the program’s chosen theme, which was Animal Allies in 2017, and research possible solutions.
Robot Design – Team members explain why they designed the robot in the way they did. At this level, the robot design materials consist primarily of LEGOS.
Robot Performance – Teams score points when their robot successfully completes specified actions on the playing field.
Core Values – While teams complete a short activity, judges observe how well the members work together.
Students new to the robotics program are often surprised there is much more to it than just building and programming a robot. The program, Dean Kamen says, is so much more than that.
“FIRST is more than robots. The robots are a vehicle for students to learn important life skills. Kids often come in not knowing what to expect- of the program nor of themselves. They leave, even after the first season, with a vision, with confidence, and a sense that they can create their own future,” he stated.
At this year’s competitions, two UMS teams, the CyberKnights and the Oinkers, performed well enough in local contests to qualify for the State competition. For the CyberKnights, the accomplishment did not come without some drama. Because their materials arrived late, team members had just one week to construct their robot. At a competition in Davenport on December 11, inclement weather conditions left the team without two coaches and two team members. With each team member assigned specific duties to perform when competing, the remaining members of the CyberKnights had to quickly reassign duties at the competition site to ensure a successful presentation could be made for the judges.
While neither the CyberKnights or Oinkers placed at the State competition, principal Mark Albertsen said, “This was a great learning experience for this group, and fun was had by all! We look forward to what the future holds for Robotics next year!”

The Progress Review gratefully acknowledges Mark Albertsen for his contributions to this story and sharing it with our readers. -MW