Members of Granard Middle School's robotics team, called the “Styrognomes,” anxiously watch as the Lego robot they programmed is put to the test at the first local Lego robotics competition held Saturday. Ewing Middle School's robotics team, called the “Eaglebotics” took first place in the middle school division. (Ledger photo/ TIM GULLA) As dozens of people huddled around a small platform at Cherokee Technology Center on Saturday, elation and dejection ebbed and flowed as tiny little robots made mostly of Lego building blocks either succeeded in performing designated tasks or missed their mark.
Some of the tasks seemed simple enough. In one exercise, the little robots had to push a little barrel through a door of a barn made with Legos. In another, they had to carry a little box and drop it on the roof of a tiny little Lego home.
Some succeeded to wild applause. Some didn’t, evidenced by groans.
But based on the rock concert-like atmosphere, winning wasn’t the only reward.
Sponsored by The Timken Foundation, Duke Energy and Spartanburg Community College’s Cherokee County Campus, the Lego robotics competition is just the beginning of a new initiative to get area children excited about math, science and engineering — fields of study that aren’t just important for future employees at companies such as Timken and Duke, but for the future of a nation built on innovation.
“Without a doubt our future is in science, technology, english and mathematics,” said Rick Jiran, district manager for government and community relations at Duke Energy. “This program is a great way to get middle and high school students excited about the opportunities in those fields.”
And through Lego robotics, he added, “It’s not only challenging but fun.”
Ten teams participated in the first competition and all of them spent at least two months preparing for it.
Teachers and robotics team coaches Derek Wrenn and Kimberly Martin said their students at Granard Middle School were genuinely excited about the challenge and had been meeting after school in advance of the competition.
The students not only had to program the on-board computers on the Lego robots to get them to perform specific tasks, they also had to come up with a science project and make a presentation to judges. The theme of the first competition centered on environmental responsibility. Students from Granard Middle School, who came up with a garden gnome-themed team name of “Styrognomes,” treated judges to a presentation about recycling styrofoam food containers at school.
Henry Giles, interim president of Spartanburg Community College, said whether they knew it or not, the students participating in the robotics challenge were learning many of the skills needed by today’s manufacturers.
Building and programming the Lego robots and getting them to accomplish specific tasks required the use of trigonometry, geometry, physics and math. Giles noted that the tasks are really no different than building and programming the automated equipment used on today’s assembly lines, such as robots that weld car parts together.
“They’re getting to see firsthand how their math and science skills can be used,” Giles said. “And they’re learning it in a fun way.”
Investing in the future, both The Timken Foundation and Duke Energy each gave $100,000 grants in support of Spartanburg Community College’s Lego robotics program. The college itself is building a new mechatronics electrical laboratory to simulate modern assembly lines. Middle and high school students participating in the Lego robotics program will get to use the lab’s work stations.
The robotics challenges are expected to become annual events in Cherokee County. Winning teams will have opportunities to compete on state and national levels.