Library’s LEGO Robotics Connects Kids to Tech

Brick by brick, the boys and girls of the Borrego Springs Robotics Club are laying the foundation for possible careers in technology or computers – and having a blast doing it.

The club captured the Robot Design Award at a recent competition in Temecula where they faced off against 10 other teams. Now they will be advancing to the Southern California Robotics Championship held in December at Legoland.

The group has been together less than a year and meets at the Borrego Springs branch of the San Diego County Library. They are a part of the FIRST LEGO League, which encourages teams to tackle a solution to a scientific question using LEGO robots they create from kits.

“I’m not going to lie, it’s a lot of fun,” said Eric Robinson, Borrego Springs branch manager. “Especially the competition – all the kids are so excited.”

Robinson said he started the afterschool program in January because the kids in the area didn’t have a lot of opportunities to explore technology, and FIRST gives them that exposure.

The projects combine engineering, design concepts and computer programming. They start with a LEGO MINDSTORM kit and create a robot using motors and sensors that detect light, color and touch. The creations use ultrasonic feedback to determine distances.

The club also helps teach the values of team work, team spirit and cooperation, according to Robinson.

The club met once a week in the beginning, but with competitions heating up, the group of six boys and two girls ages 10 to 15 meets three times a week now to take their project to the next level.

Competitions are judged in three parts. There is a small research project where the teammates develop an innovative solution to a problem. Then the morning session at the competition they go interview with the judges.

“They present their robot, their research program and answer questions,” said Robinson.

Then it’s on to the fun part of the competition.

Fifteen obstacles are placed on a billiards-size table. The robot creation has to navigate to each obstacle and interact with it. One obstacle might be to move something or retrieve something. In another, the robot has to go up to little pinwheel and give it a spin. When the pinwheel stops, a color appears and the robot has to read which color it is and then pick up a token of that color.

“It’s fairly complex,” said Robinson. “And the competition is pretty fierce.”

Teams are given just 2.5 minutes to overcome the obstacles and score as many points as possible.

The program was started with funding from the Friends of the Borrego Springs Library and the Borrego Springs Civic Foundation, but the program was able to expand and join the league competition due to a grant from the Audie Jones & Carson Lee Family Foundation.

Robinson says plans are underway to expand the program into the FIRST Robotics competitions for older age groups, and the library is looking to start clubs at other branches.

In the meantime, the Borrego Springs team is preparing for the next step toward a trip to the world championships.

“We’ve already started work on conquering another obstacle and picking up extra points,” said Robinson. “We’ve got one month to improve for the next competition.

“It’s energizing.”