Building a Better Bot Through LEGO

July 11, 2018
Teammates stand around their bots planning their next move.

If you build it, they will come. Or rather, if you design it, then build it, then program it, they will come to see your robot pull off cool tricks.

The Carver Community Center in Kokomo’s newest group is recruiting kids to build bots on their FIRST LEGO League team.

“You’re talking about putting together a group of kids that learn how to build a robot, know how to program, know how to do these events,” said Danta Rogers, the executive director of the Carver Center.

In addition to programming, community outreach and his other duties at the center, Rogers also leads the newly established team. He and several other staffers at the center are working to make sure the team, now a few weeks into practices, puts its best foot forward.

The competitions, which begin in earnest this fall, give teams a challenge in which they must build an autonomous robot from a LEGO Mindstorms EV3 kit and then program it to complete a specific task centered around a theme (this year’s theme is “Into Orbit”). For instance, a team might have to program a bot to kick a soccer ball into a goal or guide a car to bring an item to a certain location. You can get a better idea of what that looks like on LEGO’s website.

“The EV3 is more complicated. The programming language is more sophisticated. They use these things at MIT, Purdue – I’ve had former students come back who were in engineering at Purdue and ask for help because they were given one of these robots,” said Jim McCarter.

McCarter is a 15-year veteran of the FIRST LEGO League, having taken his Kokomo teams to win five state championships. His team even claimed the world championship in 2006. He now acts as a mentor for teams like the one at the Carver Center on behalf of AndyMark, a robotics parts manufacturer in Kokomo.

A girl and boy look over their newly constructed robot.
Photo: Carver Community Center

The Carver Center’s team is made up of around eight to 10 kids, mostly middle school-age. But Rogers says he welcomes anyone who’s interested.

“I’m trying to reach every kid I can reach that wants to be in the program,” Rogers said. “I’m not going to turn a fourth or fifth grader away because I want more of a middle school team. That’s the beginning of another team.”

This team came to be thanks to what Rogers calls a meeting of the minds. Spurred on by the robotics programs’ popularity at local schools, he met with McCarter and AndyMark President and Owner Andy Baker (both of whom he has known for over a decade) to discuss launching a program at the Carver Center. AndyMark is also a parts supplier for the FIRST Robotics Competition.

Rogers also saw the need to appeal to kids who may not be interested in solely athletic outlets.

“They’re not going to play sports. They’re just going to sit around and play on their phones. What can we do to bring them in and get them off their phones? Well, you put a computer in front of them and say, ‘Hey, would you like to try to make this robot?’” Rogers said. “It brings them in because that’s the type of stuff they’re into.”

According to Rogers, the team meets these children where their interests lie, in creative spaces of play like LEGO and Minecraft. But McCarter has a simpler explanation for why it’s appealing.

“It’s robots. Robots are cool,” McCarter laughed. “They come in and they see a robot, and they see this thing moving around…but what really hooks them is once they get on the computer and make a few clicks, type in a few numbers, and then that robot does what they told it to do.”

McCarter and a young engineer celebrate a breakthrough.
Photo: Carver Community Center

Both men say that enthusiasm has easily translated into progress for the young engineers. “Lightbulbs are starting to come on,” McCarter said.

But familiarity with the programming is only one item to check off the list before this fall. Rogers is working on raising money and applying for grants to secure a robot kit of their own, which can range from $350 to $500. For now, they’re working with kits that have been loaned out to them.

We want the kids to be able to have everything they need. We don’t want them to go down there and not have what they need, trying to compete,” Rogers said.

Once the Carver Center team gets to the FIRST LEGO League competitions, it’ll be a bot battle to behold. When the league began in 1998, McCarter says there were 27 countries and around 200 teams. Now, 88 countries come together with 32,000 teams to fill stadiums with tens of thousands of people to see these competitions.

As the team prepares to move into the competitive scene, Rogers is already looking past that. His biggest hope for the members? Scholarships and futures in STEM fields.

“It’s math, it’s science, it’s computer programming,” Rogers said. “At the end of the day, some of these kids are going to be our next engineers, be our next computer whizzes.”

See what other kids are crafting with LEGO on this episode of The Friday Zone. (via WTIU)

Featured photo courtesy of Carver Community Center.