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Ready, Set: Robots!

Ready, Set: Robots!

Middle school students tackle "Nature's Fury" through teamwork, persistence, and robots at an Academy event.

by Caitlin Johnson

For a moment, 12-year-old Gabriella Ryan was distracted by the sweeping view of the Hudson River from the New York Academy of Science's fortieth-floor conference space at 7 World Trade Center.

"This is the first time my team has competed in the city this year and it's really cool to be in this atmosphere," Ryan said, admiring the spring sun reflecting off the buildings below. "It's like, so real because we're here. I'm really excited to see all the different teams. And of course, all the robots."

Ryan, a seventh grader at the St. Clare School on Staten Island came with her team, the Transformers 2, and 10 other middle school teams for the Academy's fourth annual Family Engineering Challenge Day this spring.

In all, more than 100 students from schools across New York City took part in the daylong celebration of science and engineering. Students worked together to problem-solve, learn, and have some serious fun with science.

Teams came prepared to compete in three activities: a LEGO® Robotics Gameboard Challenge, a research project—both of which are part of a global series of events sponsored by LEGO and the nonprofit science mentoring program, FIRST®—and a networking challenge where students collected stickers for successfully interacting with scientists and engineers.

This year, a fourth challenge was announced the day of the event: the National Geographic Explorers' Engineering Challenge, which asks students to tackle a problem that a National Geographic photographer might encounter in the field: how to lift a camera 10 feet in the air for an aerial shot while the photographer's feet remain firmly on solid ground.

Each of the challenges picks up on the theme of this year's event, "Nature's Fury." It's a theme that hit close to home, especially for those who live in areas of the Northeastern U.S. hit hard by Superstorm Sandy just over a year ago.

In addition to the students, their families, and coaches, more than 30 adult volunteers—most of them graduate students or professionals in STEM fields—volunteered to spend their Saturday serving as mentors or judges for the research projects.

For Bridget Huang, a biochemistry PhD student at Columbia University and volunteer mentor for the day, it's all about demystifying science and helping kids see that it's not boring, scary, or foreign.

"It's not necessarily about making everyone here become a scientist," Huang said. "My goal is that I don't want any of them to be afraid of science. I want them to have interest, which will help them in any case. Even if they work in business, they should to be able to talk to scientists."

Tinkering & Teamwork

The centerpiece of the day was the table-top LEGO® Robotics scrimmage, where teams design and program a LEGO robot to navigate an 8-foot by 4-foot game board in two-and-a-half minutes. The layout of the board simulated the aftermath of a natural disaster. Teams earned points for each task their robot completed—for example, clearing debris, avoiding obstacles, and picking up and moving pieces from one spot on the board to another.

Many of the students said they were especially excited about learning computer programming to "teach" their robots what to do, and about incorporating high-tech components into their LEGO creations. "The coolest thing was the ultrasonic sensor we put on our robot. We could program the distance from barriers and surfaces and it could avoid them," said Ariel Sanchez, 9, with PS 94K's Master Blaster team.

His teammate Eric Velasquez, also 9, said that they first learned about the sensor by watching others use it and "we decided to learn how to use it for the missions. The sensor makes me feel like, 'How can we learn and use new things?'"

"As with all good engineering, there's iteration that happens and the teams learn a lot about what happens with the robots as they watch them perform."

That spirit of collaborative learning—borrowing and building on what works—is a big part of what this annual event is designed to foster.

Because this was a scrimmage, not an official FIRST LEGO League (FLL) competition, it was open to teams who didn't qualify for the FLL finals taking place later in the spring at the Javitz Center in New York. And while the scrimmage mimicked the competition format—with four tables of teams competing at the same time—each robot was going for its personal best rather than trying to beat the others.

Each team got three runs on the scrimmage tables; in between, they could take their boards back to their "base camps" and tweak things.

"As with all good engineering, there's iteration that happens and the teams learn a lot about what happens with the robots as they watch them perform," said Stephanie Wortel, Academy Education Program Manager. "They work together to problem-solve and make their robots even better."

That's what members of team Flash from Genesis Middle School at Xavarian High School in Brooklyn did after their first run. Huddled over their gameboard, Ryan Clark, 11, and teammates CJ Ruiz, Michael Cuddy, and Chris McElhinney, all 12, were replacing their robot's treads and swapping out some of the parts.

"This wasn't planned, it was more like a last minute thing," Cuddy admitted. "The referees told us we could use more accuracy and speed."

Teammate Alexander Ayoub, 13, stopped tinkering long enough to reflect: "The thing about this, it's just a great experience because many other people don't do this kind of stuff and it really makes us a lot smarter. But it takes a lot of things, like building and programming, and you need strategies. That helps you with practically everything in life, not just if you want to become an engineer or a programmer."

Nearby, David Cadunzi, 13, with St. Clare Transformers, said that's what he likes most about this annual Academy event: "It's about having fun, and the trial and error that helps you succeed. When my team and I don't get a program we want to get, we don't back down. We keep trying it even though we mess up a lot."

John Steib, 12, with Team LEGO Force agreed: "That's a good thing you have to learn in life, too. You can't just fix everything by doing it one way or with the push of a button."

"It's easier working together with a team because if you're doing one thing and it's hard for you, your friends are there and you can learn from them," Shameekah Gray, 13, said.

Some pretty grownup lessons were being learned through "gameifying" science and mathematics.

The Nature's Fury Research Challenge: "We Lived it"

The Robotics Challenge may have been the main event, but students were equally excited about the research project. In September 2013, teams were given an assignment: identify a real community and a nature-related problem it faces, and come up with an innovative solution that will prevent damage or help the community recover from the natural disaster.

And innovate they did.

Projects ranged from a waterproof coating to prevent generators from exploding (developed by students in Bay Ridge and Breezy Point, Brooklyn, which was plagued by fires after Sandy) to an inflatable "SnapAlert" life vest that includes supplies and a homing device to alert rescuers, to a full-body suit to keep wearers safe and warm in dirty flood waters. A more fanciful project, Hurricane Fighters, centered on large flying robots that emit countervailing winds to disrupt hurricanes.

At the Academy, each team got 20 minutes to pitch their ideas and field questions from a panel of judges, all of them STEM professionals from Tata Consultancy Services, Moody's, Goldman Sachs, and InfoSys.

"It felt so real because we were in a conference room and the judges were actual engineers and people in the field," said Thomas Drennan, a member of St. Clare's Transformers.

Judges gave special recognition to several stand-out projects, including those designed by the two St. Clare Transformers teams from Staten Island.

"Sandy was definitely a big motivator for us because we lived it," said Mary Lee, coach of both Transformers teams. "We were out of school for a week with no electricity, and we had kids whose families lost homes."

"We considered a lot of ideas and decided on the ones we thought would be the most effective and would help our community the most," St. Clare student Daniella Gomes said.

Transformers 1 designed "Pack N' Track," a waterproof box that keeps valuable papers safe and has a transponder so it can be tracked at a distance of 35 feet (in version two, the team plans to boost the distance).

Transformers 2 built "The Window Seal," a window that automatically seals itself during a flood. They used a typical basement window and lined it with a bicycle tire tube that inflates when water activates a pressure sensor, indicating that flood waters are nearing the window.

Not all teams designed research projects to solve hurricane and flood-related problems. Team LEGOForce from MS 442 in Brooklyn chose Boston as their community, and blizzard-related power outages as their problem to solve.

"During a blizzard, it's really important [to keep power on] because you can get hypothermia and that can be deadly," said Ivan Sanchez, 13.

After talking to an Office of Emergency Management employee and one of the team member's landlords, an electrician, they came up with the idea for a cover for electric power lines made from a flexible series of connected casings "like the shell of a millipede."

That way, "it's a little bouncy so when a tree or a branch lands on it, it will bounce off a little. It reinforces the wire," Yosmai Bielma, 13, said.

"A Little Scary, a Lot Cool"

"The quality of the presentations and the ideas and the access the kids have to information continues to amaze me," said Paul Walker, a physicist by training who leads technology for Goldman Sachs and is also an Academy Board Member. He volunteered to judge the presentations, as he has done each year of the event.

Walker noted that this year, the networking component was integrated throughout the event. "In so many science programs, formal communication and science are emphasized but informal communication or networking—which is really the difference between success and failure in many of these fields—is not part of the program."

Bronx Taskforce coach Oscar Lemus said the Academy scrimmage "gives kids a career awareness that other tournaments can't offer. They have unlimited questions, and this is a place where they can ask real scientists."

For Enxon Zheng, from PS 94 in Brooklyn, the networking was both "scary and cool. Today, I learned how to be braver and have courage to talk with others and learn and know about them. I'm usually kind of shy."

"That's my favorite part," said Darius Gravely with team LEGOForce. "I get to meet people who are actually, like, from science and ask how they work with science."

This year, that included a visit from real-live astronauts, including Charlie Camarda and Rick Linnehan. Throughout the event, they visited with teams and fielded questions from excited students.

A Queens native and graduate of Brooklyn Polytech, Camarda praised the Academy for teaching teamwork, communication, and the importance of failing and trying again.

"The older these kids get, the more they're going to be told what works and what doesn't work. We have to make sure that they stay critical thinkers and lifelong learners and [don't] just take at face value what someone says but figure it out for themselves and stay creative," he said.

Caitlin Johnson is the co-founder and managing editor of, a website that covers a range of child and youth issues.

Editor's note: For more information on the Academy's Science Education initiatives, visit