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Monroebots to Take New Britain By Storm

Watch Callie Valenzisi and Kyle Immel lead the robot through two missions.
Watch Callie Valenzisi and Kyle Immel lead the robot through two missions.
A cat and a dog stranded after a hurricane needed to be rescued and brought to an emergency shelter, so eighth grader Kyle Immel maneuvered a robot over to the pets, dropped an arm to corral them, then backed up to the shelter.

Mission accomplished.

Seventh grader Callie Valenzisi needed to get a cargo plane with supplies to a safe zone, so she sent the robot out to hit a lever, sending the plane down a cord before rolling onto the runway.

The robot, the plane and even the pets were made of Legos. Kyle and Callie are members of Monroebots Team No. 1, which made it to States. Coach Tommy John's team will compete at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain this Saturday.

The rest of the team includes eighth graders Chris John, Greg Miller and Jordan Vaglivelo.  

"Each year there's a theme," John said of First Lego League (FLL) competition. "This year is 'Nature's Fury'. All robots mimic something in nature. All teams have the same mat, the same number of Legos and the same missions."

But the robot they design and the strategies are up to the creative talents of each team.

When building a robot, some teams go for power with big actuating arms or add sensors enabling their robots to react to light and colors. Monroebots went for simplicity, agility and speed, according to John.

"We decided to go cheap and dirty to get the missions done," he said. "We're here to score points. It's not about style or about making it dance or sing. We focus on what the missions are about and getting things done. This team works extremely well together."

Competition for Smart Kids

The FLL is under the umbrella of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition, Science and Technology). John said there are 22,000 teams worldwide from countries like Israel, China, Japan and Canada.

"Dean Kamen, an inventor, started it," John said. "He saw all of the kids in schools getting trophies for sports and thought, 'What about the smart kids who don't want to play sports?' This is something where they can enjoy competition of the mind and experience winning and losing."

Three years ago, John started Monroe's robotics program for middle school age students — drawing talent from STEM Academy and Jockey Hollow School. The popularity of Monroe's program is growing. In addition to Monroebots Team No. 1, the town has Monroebots teams 2 and 3, which have seven players a piece.

Saturday marks the first time that a Monroe team will compete in State competition.

"It's a milestone," said Don Wheeler coach of Team 3. Wheeler is an engineer at Sikorsky.

"I try to teach the programming language, how to make a robot go forward then how to stop," Wheeler said. "I try to teach the programming so it becomes a tool rather than a task. When the kids have a tool, the ideas they come up with are phenomenal. I have a blast."

John studied mechanical engineering at Ohio State and works at PTC, which develops CAD/CAM and product lifecycle management software for manufacturers. 

"I'm a global account manager and help Johnson & Johnson with their medical device business," John said. "PTC gives a lot of money to FIRST and our CEO knows Dean Kamen. I decided to start teams here. It's the perfect match for what STEM Academy and Jockey Hollow want to do."

Johnson said he hopes Monroebots will become a feeder program for VEX at Masuk High School.

The Thrill of Competition

During competitions, John said two teammates use the robot at a time, trying to complete all of the missions within two-and-a-half minutes as fans cheer from the stands. 

Teams get points for completing missions, but can also lose points from penalties. For instance, one mission is for a robot to remove a loose tree branch hanging over a power line. If the robot knocks down the wires in the process, the team loses points.

In another scenario a robot has to push a lever to make a house rise up on stilts to protect it from a flood. If the robot tips over, the team has to use their hands to get it upright again — leading to a penalty.

More Than Robots

Johnson said judges award points to teams based on three categories: Robots, core values and a research project. "We ended up doing well in all three categories," he said. "You can win in robotics and not go to States."

"Core values is being gracious, acting professional as students and competing with the missions and not other students," he said. "I saw instances where a team dropped a robot and someone from another team helped them put it back together or lent another team a part.

"We won the core values part of the competition. We did better on core values than robotics."

Pizza Pie in the Sky

For the research project, each team must come up with an idea on something that would help people in a storm, according to John.

"After a storm comes through, like a hurricane, a lot of people are stranded with trees across roads," he said. "Aside from food and water, medication might be needed, so our idea as a team was to develop a system where medicine would be delivered by 'hexacopter', a drone that would fly by GPS with video for the person controlling it."

While doing their research, John said his team came across a similar idea in which Amazon Prime Air will deliver purchases within minutes.

"England is experimenting delivering pizzas," he said, adding developed countries in Africa are looking to use the technology to deliver supplies to third world countries."

If an idea is good enough, John said a team can get a patent and present it to businesses.

Working On Saturdays

John said he likes how robotics ingrains professionalism in young people and gets them interested in engineering and problem solving.

"They're figuring things out — not me," he said. "They come to me to guide them, but they're thinking of things themselves. Every team does something different. It's interesting to see how other teams try to do the missions."

Students in Monroe's robotics program willingly meet on Saturdays to brainstorm on strategy and to work on their robot.

Kyle said, "I like just being able to come here and start building stuff. It's fun when you're able to complete some missions."

Cassie, who is in her first year of robotics, plans on doing it again next year.

"I definitely like how you do a successful program and the robot does what it's supposed to do," she said.
Robynne Wildman December 04, 2013 at 09:42 AM
Fantastic! We need more of this! :)
Bob Loblaw December 04, 2013 at 09:51 AM
Great for them.

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