Plum Point Elementary School fifth-graders Corri Railey and Margaret… (Darwin Weigel/The Calvert…)
Eighteen Calvert County public school “Lego League” teams chose to sharpen their skills on a recent Saturday morning, even though there wasn’t a prize in sight.
The Calvert County Mock Competition for Robotics, staged this month at Calvert Middle School in Prince Frederick, was initially meant to be a qualifier for the College of Southern Maryland Robotics Challenge Junior Division, scheduled for April 14, mock competition co-chairman Teri McCleaf said.
McCleaf said the college initially said only 18 of the 19 Calvert County teams could compete, but recently agreed to let all 19 of the county’s elementary and middle school teams compete.
Calvert Middle School teacher Julie Tomasik, the event’s other co-chairman, explained that the college saved a certain number of slots for each county but ended up under quota, which is why it let all Calvert teams participate.
She said that even though there was no qualifier for Calvert this year, there could be one in the future.
“Instead of just canceling the qualifier, we thought this would be great practice,” McCleaf said.
Mutual Elementary School’s team was the only team that did not attend the mock competition March 17, McCleaf said.
She said although there were no awards given out that day, some volunteers from Naval Air Systems Command attended to provide feedback on strengths and weaknesses.
Richard Be of NAVAIR said this year’s competition theme is medical technology, and the students’ Lego robots should be able to perform as many as 12 “missions.”
“They try to tie it to the area they might go into if they go into the sciences,” Be said of the competition themes every year, selected by the College of Southern Maryland.
He said one of the missions the teams might be asked to have their robot perform is setting a “broken bone” with a Lego cast.
“The really well-prepared teams will have all of them,” Be said of the 12 missions.
Tomasik said very few teams are able to prepare for all 12 missions.
“They’re hard,” she said. “It’s really hard to program the robot that perfectly.”
Tomasik said a lot of students show up at early practices not knowing what to expect.
“They say ‘Oh, we’re not just playing with Legos,’ and they leave,” she said. adding that, on the other hand, there are some students who have loyally been a part of Lego League teams since elementary school.
“I think they like the robots and they like playing with the computers,” she said.
Be said the students also had to go through a technical interview, a teamwork interview and a project review.
“It’s not all playing with Legos; there’s some development . . . but this is like a scrimmage now, so it’s a little less tense,” he said of the mock competition.
He said each team could have a maximum of 10 students, and McCleaf said the College of Southern Maryland competition would include teams from all around Southern Maryland, including those composed of home-schooled students.
Tomasik said about 60 teams compete at the College of Southern Maryland.
McCleaf and Tomasik said that some of the teams had been designing their robots since the start of the school year but that others just started in the past few months.
Tomasik said when a Lego League starts to practice “is really based on who steps up to be a sponsor.”
All of the teams will be competing against each other at challenge nonetheless, Be said.
“We are trying to give [feedback] as we go along so it’s kind of fresh,” he said.
Sixth-grader Jonathan Fluharty said his team at Calvert Middle School has been working on its robot since September.
Jonathan, 12, said the hard work seems to be paying off.
“I think it turned out pretty well,” he said, explaining he thought programming the robot to perform missions “and having every little thing go right” was the toughest part.
He said the most challenging mission so far was repairing an “artery blockage” with a Lego stint.
A team from Beach Elementary School said it thought a particularly tough mission was having to compete with another team while using a Lego “hand” to pick up a piece before the other team got it.
“My favorite part, I have to say, is pulling the lever down. I like the programming,” said Beach Elementary fourth-grader Justin Evans, 10.
Although its robot was still under construction, Appeal Elementary School’s team stood out for being the team that was mostly composed of girls, which Tomasik said seemed to often be a rarity. She said girls are usually more interested in research than programming a robot.
Girls “do tend to be more practical but not necessarily more focused,” the team’s coach, Julie Haesloop, a fourth-grade teacher at Appeal, said with a laugh.
“The best part is they’re enjoying themselves. We thought it would be nice to go through it and see what it’s like and feel okay that we’re not there yet,” Haesloop said.
Appeal fifth-grader Susie Henrichsen said for the teamwork interview, she and her teammates had to stand on a rug and flip it over without stepping off the rug.
“I’ve liked the teamwork that we’ve done,” Susie, 11, said.