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Edward Ziedins watches his Lego robot carefully as it performs a task with commands he has programmed into it at the Chattanooga School of Liberal Arts in Chattanooga.

Today's the day when Edward Ziedins and Andrew McDonough put months of roboteering to the test.

The two fourth-graders from the Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts will be among some 300 kids who will take part in a robotics competition at Signal Mountain Middle/High School.

As spectators watch, the students will use robots made from Lego interlocking plastic blocks to complete tasks on a "field" set up on 4-by-8 foot tables in the school's main gymnasium.

"It's a high-energy kind of thing," said Charley Spencer, a Tennessee Valley Authority retiree who helps organize the competition, now in its second year here. "The people who designed this program designed it like a sporting event."

The fourth- through eighth-graders are among about a quarter-million kids in 80 countries who will participate in the First Lego League competitions this year.

IF YOU GO

• What: Ed Chapin Chattanooga Area First Lego League Qualifier robotics competition

• Where: Signal Mountain Middle/High School, 2650 Sam Powell Drive, Signal Mountain

• When: Public robot competition from 9 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. today

TEAMS SLATED TO COMPETE

• Thrasher and Panthers teams - Thrasher Elementary School

• Nolan Robotics - Nolan Elementary School

• ELA Wildbots - East Lake Academy

• R3 Rockin' Robotics Rams - Bess T. Shepherd Elementary School

• BattleBots -Battle Academy

• Lego Leopards - Lakeside Academy

• Robojackets and Lookout Mountain Legos - Lookout Valley Elementary School

• CSLA Eagles and CSLA Robotics - Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts

• Harrison Cougar Bots - Harrison Elementary School

• The Justice Bricks - home-schooled

• Shockbots - Falling Water Elementary School

• Girls and Their Robots - Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy

• Red Bank Middle School 8 - Red Bank Middle School

• Bionic Dragons - Big Ridge Elementary School

• Brown Academy Robotics - Brown Academy

• St. Jude Robotics and St. Jude Robotics 2 - St. Jude School

• Team Blue M - McCallie School

• LARC - Lake Forest Middle School

• Lightning Bots - Normal Park Upper School

• Laker Bots - Soddy Elementary School

• Tyner Tybots - Tyner Middle Academy

• Rivermont Robotics - Rivermont Academy

• SDMS Techno Twins - Soddy-Daisy Middle School

"This is a worldwide competition," Spencer said. "Signal Mountain is the first step potentially for a school going on to an international competition."

Edward and Andrew are the youngest students in CSLA's robotics club, and this is the first year they'll compete.

The fourth-graders looked the part of budding roboticists Tuesday night as the club practiced at school for today's big match.

Andrew's Christmas-themed T-shirt featured R2-D2 and C-3PO, the robots of "Star Wars" fame. And Edward's thick-rimmed rectangular glasses reminded CSLA teacher Scott Rosenow, who leads the robotics club, of another fictional icon: Mr. Peabody, a talking cartoon dog who's an inventor, Nobel laureate and the smartest being alive.

"I so want to call you Mr. Peabody every time I see you," Rosenow told Edward.

Andrew and Edward spent about an hour tweaking their robot Tuesday night to get it to flip down a gate and pick up a basket as it motored around the regulation Lego playing field.

"Andrew, it didn't come out straight," Edward said as the robot went off course.

"I know," Andrew replied.

"Andrew, let's check our program," Edward said. "I think we messed up."

Back the duo went, over and over, to one of the classroom's iMac computers to reprogram their robot.

The Lego software is set up so that separate blocks of instruction on the computer screen direct the robot's movements. Changing one of the parameters in the blocks, such as the angle that the two-wheeled robot turns, will change its course after the new directions are downloaded from the iMac into the robot via USB cable.

Rosenow encouraged Edward and Andrew to dial back one of their robots' rotations so that it would head straight toward the basket and pick it up.

"What's less than a half? What's less than a half?" Rosenow asked the fourth-graders. "0.4?"

Math and fractions are some of the lessons students learn while programming robots, Rosenow said.

The reprogramming continued until toward the end of class, when the duo got their robot to finish the course.

"Yes!" the fourth-graders yelled with their arms in the air.

Andrew and Edward belong to the CSLA Eagle Robotics team, whose nine members will compete today. A total of 27 teams from public, private and home schools were slated to compete in all. Each team can have up to 10 students. CSLA is one of several schools to have two teams compete.

In addition to running their robots for three rounds in front of an audience, each team will be judged on robot design, how good a job they do presenting a proposed project to judges and whether they meet the contest's "core values," such as cooperation and showing the "utmost respect to ... teammates."

The 14 highest-ranking teams from today's event will go to an East Tennessee state championship match in Cookeville, Tenn., on Feb. 14, Rosenow said. The winning team from Cookeville will go in June to a national competition in St. Louis, he said.

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or www.facebook.com/tim.omarzu or twitter.com/TimOmarzu or 423-757-6651.

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