When their LEGO robot grabs a rescue truck, rams an ambulance and scoots both across a typhoon-swept model town, the Glen Ames robotics team hold their cheers.
Not until the plane flies, all pets are rescued and the tricky evacuation sign flips just so do the Grade 7 and 8s break out smiling.
It’s the sort of near-perfect run that set a school record and helped them win first among 32 Toronto schools vying for a spot at provincials last month.
“It’s almost like you have no room for error,” says team captain Spencer Dunsmuir.
The robot challenge at a FIRST LEGO League tournament is like throwing a Frisbee to someone far, far away, Dunsmuir said. Aim it even slightly wrong, and that Frisbee will sail way off target.
But no matter how their robot performs at the Oshawa provincials on Jan. 18, the Glen Ames team has already hit a much bigger target, and one they set for themselves – raising $3,000 and 17 boxes of food, clothes and toiletries for a Philippines school hit by Typhoon Haiyan.
“We’ve done that kind of a fundraiser at the school before,” said Dunsmuir, explaining how the team phoned up the Fox Theatre and set up a benefit movie day for staff and students. Some paid as much as $60 for a ticket to Ender’s Game or Back to the Future.
While the Philippines campaign went above and beyond Glen Ames’ FIRST LEGO League challenge, the students were asked to research and talk about a natural disaster for this year’s “Nature’s Fury” theme.
Haiyan made typhoons a natural fit, and gave the students a chance to help for real. The team’s research section emailed a US meteorologist who tracks typhoons and hurricanes, and the whole team dressed as superheroes and filmed a short musical to share the storm-tracker’s preparedness tips in a fun way.
When Beach Metro News visited Glen Ames in late December, two of the team captains led a reporter upstairs to meet the whole ten-member team.
They sat in a circle, and everyone spoke – about the robot’s optical and pressure sensors, or the time the robot’s arm malfunctioned, or the team-building event where they had 10 seconds to re-arrange themselves like a snake, then a lawn-mower.
No one talked over anyone else because the team passed a plastic gold brick around for the right to speak.
Until he got the brick, it was easy to forget the students have a coach to help them – librarian and computer teacher Luke Martin.
“When they go in for the presentations, the judges don’t want to see the coaches,” Martin said.
“So you set them up like that to begin with, and that sense of independence comes naturally to them because they’ve been doing it all along that way.”
Martin is impressed by the logic skills students show in the FLL’s robot challenge.
“Just on the programing side, they’re dealing with loops, sensors, switches and all this stuff,” he said. “I didn’t hear about a loop until Grade 12 computer science.”
But technology isn’t everything when learning to program or design a robot, Martin added, noting how well the team works together in their after-school meetings, and online on the new Schoology site that is something like a Facebook for schools.
“They’ll go home and say, ‘Oh, I have a great idea,’ put it up on Schoology and then bring it up at the meeting,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons why they are so successful this year.”
Another reason is that after eight years, robotics is a serious sport at Glen Ames.
Nearly a quarter of the school wanted to join FLL this year, Martin said. Twelve students tried out to replace the one original member has to miss provincials.
Gregor Browning, a Grade 11 student now in the math and science program at Danforth Collegiate, is one of two alumni helping this year’s team.
In 2011, he was on the Glen Ames FLL team that went all the way to the North American finals in Carlsbad, California.
“We got to take it one step further than most teams normally do,” he said. “It was really fun.”
Browning said the LEGO contest inspired him to enter the next-level FIRST Robotics Competition this year – 120-pound, six-foot robots that students design and weld together to do things like shoot a basketball or throw a Frisbee.