Students from public schools, private schools, charter schools and even some who are a part of homeschool groups were among the participants (and winners) at TVA's SuperRegional Robotics FIRST Lego League (FLL) Tournament Saturday at Chattanooga State Community College.
More than 800 people attended the tournament comprised of 36 teams from the Chattanooga area and North Georgia who advanced from four competitions last fall. Teams of up to 10 students between fourth and eighth grades designed projects around the competition's theme and programmed a robot made of Legos to perform specific tasks during the tournament.
The projects all centered on water — the overall theme was hydrodynamics. Students from Rossville Middle School in Walker County, Ga., designed a home water collection and filtration system meant to catch rain water to be used for indoor plumbing. Annoor Academy students in grades fifth through sixth also designed a water filtration system.
"The learning process is not just about building a robot," said John McDonald, the Rossville Middle School coach and tournament director for the Rossville tournament. "FIRST Lego has two core values, gracious professionalism and coopertition [cooperative competition]. It's all about teams doing the best they can, but everyone else doing their best as well."
Tournament awards and winners
PROJECT AWARD › Lookout Valley Elementary School, Chattanooga › Annoor Academy, Chattanooga › Taylor Road Middle School, Fulton County, Ga.
ROBOT DESIGN AWARD › Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts › Rossville Middle School, Walker County, Ga. › Crusader Robotics, Cleveland/Ooltewah area homeschool team
ROBOT PERFORMANCE AWARD › Alling Robotics Club, Alling homeschool group › Osborne Middle School, Gwinnett County, Ga. › Crusader Robotics
CORE VALUES AWARD › Aquaducks, East Brainerd area homeschool team › St. Jude School, Chattanooga › Boynton Elementary School, Chattanooga
OVERALL CHAMPION › Alling Robotics Club › Osborne Middle School, › Nolan Elementary School, Chattanooga
The teams are judged on their robot's design and performance, but also on the team's core values and their project. During their presentations, the students are in charge — during some, their coaches aren't even allowed in the room.
"I really like when we get to run the robot and when something doesn't go right and you can figure it out and fix it," said 11-year-old Anna Clark, a fifth-grader at the Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts.
Anna's teammate, Ella Brandon, 10, said sometimes teammates don't agree or get along.
"We talk about it and try to fix it as a group," Ella said.
It is these soft skills such as the ability to work together with different peers and present confidently that Karen West, a first grade teacher and team coach at CSLA, likes about these leagues and competitions.
"They are working together as a group and thinking outside of the box," West said.
Schools can send more than one team (CSLA had two competing), but many groups need help starting a robotics program. A robot starter kit can be more than $300, and tournament registration each year can cost as much as $500. That is where local business partners such as TVA, EPB and other companies come in.
"The teams that do the best seem to be the teams who have resources and relationships with those in the community," said Jamelie Johns, director of elementary math and science for Hamilton County Schools. Before moving to central office, Johns started Battle Academy's robotics team more than 10 years ago.
At Annoor Academy, a private Islamic school in Chattanooga, when the school wanted to start a robotics program three years ago, it turned to TVA to help buy robots and get the group off the ground, said Abdul Ofalio, Annoor's team coach and an electrical engineering professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. That year, Annoor placed in the state championship.
TVA, which has supported area robotics programs for more than a decade, doesn't target funding or services to a certain populations or schools, but does have three main focuses — female, minority and rural students, said Charley Spencer, TVA's robotics program manager.
"We want to make sure these students have the same opportunity," Spencer said. "I don't care if that child is inner-city, rural, girl, boy. In fourth grade, every child has the opportunity to succeed. They just don't necessarily have the guidance or the tools."
Six to eight teams from this weekend's competition will advance to the Northwest Georgia Super Regional Tournament at Georgia Tech in Atlanta on Jan. 27.
Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at email@example.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.