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Minn. Students Prepare For Computer Competition

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MANKATO, Minn. (AP) — Sam Mansfield is returning — again — to the laptop computer.

He inputs a number here, tweaks a rotation there, downloads a program to his wheeled robot and is quickly on his way back to the game board for another trial run.

Mansfield is on one of three Mankato teams participating in First Lego League, a competition in which teams of students use a computer program, a robot and several sets of advanced Lego components to complete a series of scored objectives in under three minutes.

The regional competition is weeks away in Rochester, and all three Mankato teams were in preparation mode recently at Lincoln Community Center.

“It’s funny,” Mansfield said as he watched his next trial go awry when the robot veered too far to one side and was knocked off course. “This was pretty much done at our last meeting.”

Mansfield, a first-year participant in the program offered through Mankato’s Community Education and Recreation program, is quickly learning what veteran Lego Leaguers already know:

Trial and error is a constant — and necessary — ingredient to success.

First Lego League is a national competition designed for 9- to 14-year-old students. Each year has a distinct theme — this year, it’s biomedical research — and teams use nothing but Legos and their own ingenuity to complete a series of objectives related to that theme.

This year, students need to complete such tasks as placing a stint in an artery, patching a hole in a patient’s heart, setting a broken bone and separating good blood cells from viruses (among many others).

For each objective, students must use a computer program to direct their wheeled robot, which can be outfitted with any number of special attachments students design themselves. Teams can attempt one objective at a time or program their robots to complete several in a row.

Jeremy Schafer spent much of the practice trying to program his robot to complete an objective on the opposite of the game board. That meant first programming a complicated series of twists and turns in order to reach his destination.

To accomplish the feat, the robot had to run a series of 15 different commands. Each unsuccessful trial meant Schafer had to return to the laptop and determine which of the commands wasn’t working.

After a string of failures, Schafer finally found the right formula and vented his relief in a single word:

“Yes!”

Dave Ulrich, a parent and second-year volunteer coach, said the Lego League hones a variety of skills, from problem-solving and team-building to fundamental engineering concepts. He said he enjoys coaching because he can see the educational process first-hand.

“It’s so fun to watch these young minds working on a problem and then see the lights just come on,” he said. “They come up with some pretty great ideas.”

The Lego League began in Mankato four years ago when a Kato Engineering employee named Dave Rich approached Mankato’s Community Education and Recreation program. He had volunteered with a Lego League in another community and was wondering if he could start one in Mankato.

Rich helped secure a start-up grant from Kato Engineering and even coached Mankato’s first two teams.

Plus, the timing happened to coincide with a statewide push to get elementary- and junior high-aged students more interested in science, math and engineering.

“We credit much of our success to (Rich and Kato Engineering),” said Melanie Schmidt, director of Mankato’s Community Education and Recreation program, who went on to say that Lego League continues to be one of its most popular activities among kids:

“It’s very rich in practical applications, but it’s also just a lot of fun.”

In addition to Kato Engineering, the program is now also sponsored by Dotson Company and Winland Electronics.

By TANNER KENT
Free Press of Mankato

(© Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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