Popular movies, cartoons, and science fiction novels often paint a picture of a world where robots become human-like and take over the world. In Surry County, middle school students are taking over robots and learning to program them to solve real-world challenges all while competing against other area middle school students.
Last year, for the first time, middle school students from Surry County and Mount Airy City Schools had the opportunity to participate in robotics competition under the North Carolina First Lego League (FLL), thanks to a partnership between the school systems and several local businesses, led by SouthData Inc. This year, Elkin City Schools has joined the alliance, adding more teams to the mix.
Surry FLL kicked off its regular season at Central Middle School in Dobson at 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday with a scrimmage among teams from Elkin, Meadowview, and Central middle schools. A second scrimmage is set to be hosted by Mount Airy Middle School beginning at 3:30 p.m. today featuring teams from Gentry, Pilot Mountain and Mount Airy middle schools.
A county-wide tournament is slated for Saturday, Dec. 14, in the gymnasium on the campus of Surry Community College. Last year’s competition was as intense as any local athletic competition with team members, parents, grandparents, school officials and community members cheering for their favorites. With a year of experience behind them, organizers said they expect the December tournament to be even bigger and better.
The FLL project grew locally last year from discussions between Surry County Schools and SouthData Inc. concerning how schools and businesses can partner to improve education initiatives through implementation of a robotics program. SouthData agreed to be the principal corporate sponsor and Mount Airy City Schools quickly jumped on board. SouthData recruited Insteel Industries Inc., Advanced Electronic Services Inc., NCFI Polyurethanes, Northern Hospital of Surry County, and Renfro Corp. to join the project. All have agreed to continue that sponsorship this school year. The Surry Economic Development Partnership has agreed to act as the umbrella organization for Surry FLL which allows donations to be tax deductible.
“We as a company wanted to do something that would benefit the local educational system,” according to John Springthorpe III, president of SouthData. Springthorpe said he was especially interested in becoming involved in a project designed to stimulate interest in certain subjects since employers frequently experience shortages of qualified candidates.
“The First Lego League is an extracurricular activity for students where they compete in building a Lego robot, which has to be programmed to perform various tasks,” Springthorpe explained. “The participants are judged based on the robot design, a science project, teamwork and presentation. The competition stimulates learning in a hands-on and exciting environment, which helps the students discover new career possibilities and develop skills that will last a lifetime.”
Surry teams are associated with a state and national organization called FIRST, an acronym that stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology” which has partnered nationally with lego to organize local, regional, state and national competitions annually.
Teams of middle school students, fueled by their imaginations and their increasing knowledge of math, science, engineering, and technology, will be guided by a teacher-coach to prepare for a national challenge using a programmable robot built from Logo blocks.
Each Surry team must solve the same nationally developed challenge within specific guidelines, but how they do it is up the team. Teams earn points in competition for succeeding at various aspects of the challenge. Last year’s challenge involved helping senior citizens cope with everyday tasks that have become difficult due to aging.
This year’s challenge, called Nature’s Fury, involves natural disasters, such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and tornadoes and how they affect people living in the areas of devastation.
Organizers said the competition is not all about robotics competition, although that is the segment that is most visible for spectators. In addition, community experts are asked to serve as trained judges, using national rubrics, to rate student teams in the areas of core values, a research project, and robot design.
Each middle school in Surry County Schools, Mount Airy City Schools, and Elkin City Schools, is fielding at least two teams.
Interested parents may learn more about the program at their child’s school by contacting the principal of the middle school their child attends. For additional information about the North Carolina competition, go to www.ncfirstrobotics.org. For the Surry FLL website, visit http://surryfll.org/.