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At Lego robotics competition, Carroll students display engineering skills and teamwork

Teams of Carroll County Public Schools students in grades four through eight showed off their STEAM skills at the FIRST Lego League Challenge qualifier competition over the weekend.

The competition, held at West Middle School Saturday, hosted 28 teams, each with 10 students or fewer. Of those teams, six have qualified to advance to the state tournament Feb. 25, at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in Catonsville.

The science, technology, engineering, arts and math competition features student-created Lego robots that compete for points by completing tasks. Students’ programming strategy, teamwork and problem-solving skills were also evaluated by judges, said the school system’s STEM coordinator Bryan Shumaker.

“Beyond just trying to create someone who is a robotics expert, an engineer or a programmer, it’s the collaborative nature of working as a team toward a common goal that makes this unique and satisfying,” Shumaker said.

Most teams begin preparations in the fall, spending about an hour on the extracurricular activity each week. For the robotics competition, Lego robots made from Mindstorms EV3 and Spike Prime kits perform a series of tasks on a 4-foot by 8-foot table. There are several limitations on how robots can be constructed, but generally they employ wheels, motors and other pieces coded to perform lifting, pushing, rotating and twisting tasks. There are 16 missions on the game board for which the team can score points, but Shumaker said most teams optimize their robot to excel at roughly two to seven of the tasks.

“The kit provides a myriad of opportunity to create unique robots that can do unique things,” Shumaker said.

While the programming strategy and core values categories implore students to reflect on their design choices and cooperation, an innovation project requires students to ideate a solution for a real-world problem.

Carroll County fields 56 Lego robotics teams, Shumaker said, and a similar competition for the other half of teams was held the previous weekend. Many Carroll elementary and middle schools field multiple teams, and students who attend schools without an official team are welcome to join one of several community teams in the county.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) programs have exploded in popularity since 2020, said Rose Young, the director and treasurer of PIE^3, the Partnership and Inspiration for Engineering, Education and Entrepreneurship, and robotics has been especially popular in Carroll County. The number of Lego League teams in Maryland fell to around 100 amid the pandemic, but has grown to more than 300, with Carroll students representing about one in every six. PIE^3 assists the school system in coordinating the robotics program.

“They’re back in a big way,” Young said, “and they want the in-person events. They want excitement, they want the sports-like environment, they want to get out, they want to talk to people, they want to see other kids, and they want to do their best and challenge themselves.”

The Maryland General Assembly in 2016 passed a bill allocating $250,000 in grant funding to support and expand robotics programs. This year, $350,000 was available to be shared among state jurisdictions, according to the Maryland Department of Education.

Carroll County’s in-school robotics programs are supported by the state, as well as grant funding from the Kahlert Foundation, which supports STEM in CCPS on a larger scale across several initiatives, Shumaker said.

This year, four West Middle School teams participated in the competition, FIRST Lego League Challenge coach Angela McNamara said. Students self-divided into teams of around five, the seventh grade science teacher added.

“It’s an amazing problem to have when you have so much interest,” McNamara said. “West Middle had two teams last year. My goal was to expand our program here to make it open to more students, and we did that.”

McNamara said the program is a valuable opportunity for students, as it teaches communication, critical thinking and teamwork, as well as robotics skills.

McNamara coached Robert Moton Elementary students for five years and Sykesville Middle students for two years before coming to West Middle. A grant-funded stipend provided to coaches is similar to that received by assistant coaches for school athletics, she said.

McNamara hopes some of her students continue in more advanced FIRST robotics programs while in high school, she added.

“I’ve just always been very interested in getting kids to just kind of think outside of the box when it comes to schoolwork, robotics and life,” McNamara said. “All of that just kind of lends itself naturally to developing those skills that they’re going to need in their future.”