WESTERLY — The clock strikes 2:30 on a sunny afternoon at Westerly Middle School, and students stream out the door into the crisp fall air, beelining for the school bus or parking lot.
Sixth-grader Colby Winters heads toward a different destination: the classroom of robotics teacher Charles Julian, where the school’s robotics club meets twice per week. Julian calls the group of 20 together, and explains the goals for the day and an assignment due at the next meeting.
After that, the students scatter around the room. Some sit at computers working on programming while others piece together kits donated by Lego.
Winters and fifth-grader Justin Zhou, new members to the team this year, huddle over a set of Legos with a thick pile of instructional pictures, piecing together what they say will become a road turning signal.
Winters explains that the task is “kind of hard,” but luckily both he and Zhou are up to the challenge.
Farther down Route 1, four home-schooled boys enter Kevin Seekell’s Charlestown home on a Friday night, just as the sun is setting, with a similar purpose.
Crowding around a wooden dining room table with a “Home Sweet Home” sign framed on the wall above them, they listen as Seekell, a math teacher at the Alan Shawn Feinstein Middle School of Coventry, outlines the night’s agenda.
Seekell’s home-schooled son and team member Caleb, 13, passes around copies of the group’s skit to the others, and they begin to practice reading the lines.
Both the Charlestown and Westerly teams are part of the Rhode Island chapter of First Lego League, an international partnership that intends to spark children’s interest in science, technology and engineering. The Westerly team has participated in years past, while the Charlestown group is new to the league.
Each year, the league assigns a different challenge, giving participants three months to design, program and build a robot that fits certain requirements. This year’s challenge, sponsored by National Grid, is “Nature’s Fury.” It asks students to focus on ways to prepare for, stay safe during, or rebuild after natural disasters.
Given the damaging effects of Superstorm Sandy last year, both teams have decided to focus on hurricanes as their topic of choice.
Julian, a new teacher at the school, said that as a coach he cannot offer more than minimal guidance on the actual project. “I’m just the organizer,” he said. “I schedule the meetings, email the parents, distribute snacks and try to keep the kids focused. The actual project is all the kids, they make the decisions, they build the robot, all of it.”
Seekell said this can sometimes be challenging.
“Of course, I know how I would do the project,” he said. “But they have their own ideas and I just have to let them sort of stumble through the process.”
This hands-on philosophy reflects the original purpose of the league, said Mary Johnson, acting executive director of Rhode Island School for the Future and the First Lego League Rhode Island.
“The focus is on real hands-on and inquiry-based ways to get kids engaged in science, technology and engineering,” Johnson said. “There’s no one right answer, which is often a very different experience than what a lot of the school day is, where kids are encouraged to give the right answer.”
Julian said he also tries to make this idea the center of his coaching. “My goal is to let them figure out the answer themselves,” he said. “That’s really how anybody learns anything. Once you’ve done it yourself, you’ll know how to do it.”
The local teams are among 72 groups competing in this year’s tournament, according to Johnson. The only requirements for the Rhode Island division are that the teams have two to 10 members between the ages of 9 and 14 with state residency and some sort of coach or adviser.
Each team will compete in one of four qualifiers in November or December, with a proportionate number of high-scoring teams from each qualifier advancing to the state competition in January. After the state tournament, regional winners will participate in one of three world tournaments.
The teams are judged in three categories: the robot’s ability to complete a variety of challenges within a limited time frame; an oral presentation that provides an improvement on an existing solution or a new solution to address the problem of natural disasters; and demonstration of “core values.” The core values include team spirit, respect, and inclusion — and the young people must do the work themselves.
For Westerly fifth grader Frost Infante, who said she likes building, the club gives her a social way to explore her interests.
Noah Silva, a sixth grader, said that participating and learning about robotics is not only fun, but also the start of a career path. “When I was little, I always wanted to make Legos,” he said. “Eventually I want to work for the Lego company, so I thought this would be a good start.”
Winters echoed Silva’s aspirations in technology and design. “I’ve actually been thinking about getting a job designing computers or electronic devices,” he said.
Dylan Temel, an eighth grader and team veteran, said the club has deepened his interest in technology. “It’s fun using the robot to move through the course,” he said, “It’s kind of like a robot obstacle course.”
The four boys on the Charlestown team have never participated in any robotics competitions before. “It’s more Legos for me than the robotics stuff,” said Daniel Reightler, 13, of Westerly.
Charlestown team member Vincent Burg, 12, said he is also new to the robotics scene, but is finding an interest in it. “This is definitely starting to get me more interested in programming and design,” he said.
Despite the team’s newness, they seem to be catching on quickly. Already, they have started the preliminary design and construction of their robot, Excelsior EV3, and have successfully programmed it to complete some of the challenges. Additionally, the team has started drafting a script for their oral presentation.
Julian said the skills developed in the club and in the robotics classes he teaches, which are mandatory for every grade in middle school, will have wide application.
“It’s not so much about learning about robots as that: learning to problem solve,” he said. “That can be applied to basically anything.”