Scores of teams will use robots they designed, built and programmed to compete in the FIRST LEGO League tournament on Dec. 10 in TTU’s Memorial Gym. The robots will maneuver through a variety of challenges, designed this year to get students thinking about how robots can prepare and protect food and agriculture.
“It’s basically an opportunity for them to experience engineering,” said Ken Hunter, a basic engineering professor at TTU, who is one of the main event organizers. “People ought to get just as excited about kids at a robotics competition as they would at a football game or as much attention as if they were star athletes.”
Every year, the international competition aims to inspire and instruct nearly 200,000 students, who use special LEGO kits to explore various engineering and programming problems.
Each robot consists entirely of LEGO pieces and contains an autonomous microcomputer that serves as the brain and responds to light, touch, rotation, temperature and visual sensors. Each team assembles a robot from more than 700 LEGO pieces and creates a program that allows the robot to interact with the environment free from any wires or remote controls.
TTU, in partnership with UT-Battelle, the operating contractor for Oak Ridge National Laboratory, has hosted the contest for 12 of the competition’s 13 years. Though the challenges and the teams change every year, Hunter says students have the same reactions when they see their robots take off.
“At first, they’re intensely working on the robot,” Hunter said. “When they press the button, there’s this look of anticipation and, when it does what it’s supposed to do, you just see them jumping up and down with their arms in the air. You see it again and again.”
TTU engineering professors and ORNL scientists judge the teams on teamwork, oral presentations and methodology and technical abilities.
More than 50 TTU engineering students volunteer to staff the event and to direct the nearly 1,000 people who come to participate or watch.
The experience resonates with the young competitors and helps them view engineering fields as potential careers, according to Hunter.
“I’ve not seen many things that can hold the attention of kids that age all day,” he said. “With 12 years’ experience, I have kids in Intro to Engineering every year who were here in the FIRST competition. There’s measurable impact with the number of kids who pursue STEM degrees after participating in FIRST LEGO League.”