New task for state’s top Lego robotics team: funding trip to nationals

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Students from Hartford-Sumner Elementary School have been asked to develop their skit for wider circulation after taking home the first-place performance prize at the annual Lego Robotics competition in Augusta. From left to right are Jamie Richardson, Shyloe Morgan, Max White, Siana Jacobs and Kylie Carrier. 

BUCKFIELD — The half a dozen students representing Maine at the national Lego robotics competition are all talking at once in excited, urgent voices, so the point they’re trying to make — that they didn’t hear their team called during the announcement of winners at the competition  because hundreds of students were talking all at once — comes in fits and starts.

The middle school students from Buckfield Junior-Senior High School beat out 10 competitors to take home the first-place prize in the Maine Lego Robotics Competition in Augusta on Dec. 12.

Marching up to the podium amid the din, gifted and talented teacher Linda Andrews had no idea what her team had won. She was floored at the first-place prize and even more overjoyed when a careful reading of their award letter revealed that over half of their costs to attend the national event had been waived. 

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“All of a sudden they were calling us again,” Andrews said. “I couldn’t even hear what they said. The kids were so excited they’d got two trophies, they were squealing with delight.”

The team, the Buckfield Bots, is made up of seventh-graders Jessica Doucette, Maggie Bragg and Cheyanne Goroshin, and eighth-graders Hunter White, Will Ellis and Nathan Cyr.

They will be among an estimated 30,000 students from around the world to attend the national event in St. Louis in April after taking first place in computer programming. 

The goal of the competition is to give the country’s future workforce a primer on the interdisciplinary requirements demanded by the world’s most elaborate projects, from NASA space shuttles to iPhones, by reenacting the ways advancements in technology surface, according to Maine Robotics executive director Tom Bickford. 

“If you look at what makes successful scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs, it’s not just one thing,” Bickford said. “You have to have people skills and an ability to work with groups. Partnerships rule the world.”

He added, “They’ll have the best time of their life rubbing elbows with people from all around the world.”

Students are tasked with programming a laptop that controls the movements of a Lego robot through a series of tasks — from kicking a soccer ball to pulling a ring — on an air-hockey-table-sized obstacle course, outfitted witih light sensors that detect different-colored lines on the table’s surface. The operations are so minute that millimeters spell the difference between first and last place. 

A timed skit is as important to their overall success as their robotic savvy. The Bots chose maps as their research topic, demonstrating how reading and traveling without the aid of Google can be taught to tune into an individuals’ strengths and weaknesses. 

Maine joined the worldwide competition 15 years ago through the behest of Bickford. This year, 72 teams from across the state entered the tournament. 

Students from Hartford-Sumner Elementary School, a team taught by Andrews but unaffiliated with the Buckfield team, took home first place in their performance piece, a skit pitching the idea of raising self-esteem through routine acts carefully researched and vetted by professional social workers. 

After practicing for months after school and on Saturdays, the students have a new task: funding their trip. Meals, transportation and lodging can cost upwards of $10,000 per team, according to Bickford. The Lego Foundation has awarded a $5,000 scholarship and waived its $1,000 entrance fee to the tournament.

Andrews and a group of teachers has until April to raise the money, signaling the start of bake-sale and bottle-drive preparations. 

Huddled together in a classroom last week, the students talked about plans to spend the next few months overhauling their robot. Meanwhile, they’re trying to get over the surprise of winning. 

“We didn’t think we were going to win anything,” Cyr said. “When we heard ‘Buckfield’ again we ran down the stairs yelling, ‘We won! We won!’ even though we weren’t sure what it was.” 

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