Thursday, March 21, 2013

Southern Maine Gearbots rise to the challenge by Michelle Libby

Take a fan of Legos, add in a love of science and technology and you have a Gearbot. Southern Maine Gearbots started last year for students in kindergarten to eighth grade. The program uses special Lego kits that expose the children to STEM (Science, technology, engineering and math).

“The Lego robotics and computer software bring it all together for the kids,” said coach and secretary for the Gearbots Michelle Jordan.

Southern Maine Gearbots are holding their second annual district meet at Saint Joseph’s College on March 30. The competition changes depending on the league.

There are two leagues. The junior league has nine teams made up of kindergarten to third-graders with six members on each team. The senior league has seven teams consisting of third- to eighth-graders. The third grade students can decide which level they want to compete at.

Southern Maine Gearbots is separate from the school, said Jordan. It also has competitors from area schools who didn’t have enough interest to create a team or league. Saco has 56 children, Windham has 102 participants and Gorham, Falmouth and Portland all send a few students.

“It’s a great opportunity. Instead of everything after school being about sports, they’re exposed to something new and different.” The season runs from January to the end of March. The teams meet once a week for an hour and a half.

Since January the junior league has been working with the US First Lego kits to design and build something to help seniors overcome their challenges. The teams had to interview seniors and compare how their lives have changed and to discover what they have difficulty doing. Over the 11 weeks of preparation, the competitors work through a curriculum covering simple machines like pulleys and incline planes. Jordan’s team created a wheel chair designed to help a senior when eating at a buffet. The finished model fits on a 15 x 15 foot base plate.

The students learn about robotics through this process. When they are judged as a team, they display their product and are interviewed about it.

“It’s amazing to watch what they come up with and what they do,” said Jordan.
The senior league works with Maine Robotics under the direction of Tom Bickford at UMaine-Orono to compete in various challenges like who is the strongest, the fastest or who can pull the most weight up an incline. They use the Lego-Mindstorm products and are not given as much guidance, according to Jordan.

In the future, Southern Maine Gearbots would like to include a high school team. “At this time, we don’t have something for the kids to go on to,” said Jordan.

On March 30, the meet is open to the public as Windham and Saco compete. Andrew Milluzzi, a Lego engineer will be a featured speaker.

“We’ve had a lot of growing pains last season, but we’ve worked through them. We have definitely made some strong improvements,” said Jordan.

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