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Robotics team gets feet wet

INDEPENDENCE -- Jeffrey Barlow places the robot -- a LEGO-made contraption -- down on the table and lets it roll.

Seventh-graders Rufus Schrader, Jeffrey Barlow, Julia Wright and Jenna Mays, from left, put their robot through its paces Dec. 5 at Talmadge Middle School.

Photo by Pete Strong

Seventh-graders Rufus Schrader, Jeffrey Barlow, Julia Wright and Jenna Mays, from left, put their robot through its paces Dec. 5 at Talmadge Middle School.

December 11, 2012

INDEPENDENCE -- Jeffrey Barlow places the robot -- a LEGO-made contraption -- down on the table and lets it roll.

The robot, about the size of a loaf of bread, rolls to the left, pivots and rolls again, avoiding obstacles before it arrives at a tiny model stove. A small arm in front of the robot pops up and flips a switch.

Success!

Still, Barlow and fellow Talmadge Middle School seventh-grader Rufus Schrader responded with sighs.

"That was better than it did on Saturday," Schrader said.

He's referring to their robot's performance at the FIRST LEGO League tournament Dec. 2 in McMinnville.

The two boys were part of a Talmadge team whose mini-machine couldn't navigate a course without colliding into objects. Barlow said it was a programming glitch and incorrect wiring to motors.

The school's two seventh- and eighth-grade teams didn't advance past the qualifying round. That they participated, however, is a victory for a fledgling program, said Talmadge teacher and LEGO robotics coach Brad Biery.

The school institutionalized LEGO League this year by folding it into an existing engineering class for the first time. The hope is to field more than two teams annually in the future.

"We went in with open minds and the kids did everything to the best of their ability," Biery said. "They held their heads high."

LEGO League is an international competition that involves elementary and middle school students designing, programming and building robots to complete tasks related to a given theme. This year's theme was improving the life of senior citizens.

The program teaches kids how to team build and apply math and science concepts to real-world problems.

There have been teams on an occasional basis at Talmadge in the last decade through an after-school activity. Running the activity as a class was an experiment this year to gauge student interest; the school ended up with two teams and almost 20 students.

"It sounded pretty fun to me," Barlow said. "I already have (LEGO bricks) at home and wanted to try something new."

One thing that the program at Talmadge will need to stay afloat and become more accessible to children is community support. It cost nearly $1,500 this year, Biery said.

The interest is there. Julia Wright, a team member, said she and others would return and recruit more students. Eighth-graders, meanwhile, may come back to serve as mentors.

Talmadge's team had very few members with any LEGO League experience and it showed, Biery said, noting he believed the rookie outing would result in a lot of bruised egos.

"But what a lot of the kids did was look at other robots, talk with each other and (said) `lets try doing this instead next year,'" he noted. "We're excited about doing this again."

Wright said she can already think of one improvement.

"The robot will be more compact so it can move better," Wright said. "The sides kept catching on (obstacles) when we were running it."

You Can Help

* Talmadge Middle School's FIRST LEGO League team is done for 2012-13, but will need financial support to continue as a class next year. Donations or financial contributions to cover registration fees and supplies are welcome. For more information or to learn how you can help, contact Brad Biery at 503-838-1424.

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