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Young robotics competitors earn a spot in provincial championships

The Elmira Space Chickens, St. Clements Wild Goats and the St. Jacobs Super Stingers participated in the FIRST Lego competition over the weekend at St. David’s Catholic Secondary School in Waterloo. The Wild Goats (top right) won first place in the tournament, followed by the Space Chickens (left), who placed second. [Aneta Rebiszewski / The Observer]

Several local FIRST Lego League teams walked away with more than just hardware after a strong showing at the Waterloo qualifying tournament last weekend.

The Elmira Space Chickens and St. Clements Wild Goats performed so well that they will move on to the Ontario West Provincial Championships in February 2020. The St. Jacobs Super Stingers also scored ninth (250 points) out of 24 teams in a very competitive robot game.

“We were so happy to have won that [advancing] award. That was all we had wanted,” said Space Chickens member Jarod Wight, adding that the results were not entirely expected. “A few of us cried – one of them might have been me – we were so happy that we were going on. It was the best day ever.” 

To prepare for the official tournament, each team spends several months constructing an autonomous robot built entirely out of LEGO Mindstorm technology. The robot must solve as many missions as possible within a specific time frame to earn points. They have three tries to do so, and only their highest score counts. The judges also evaluate the robot design.

The Space Chickens won the 2nd place Robot Design Award, placed fourth place in the robot game with “Smallbot,” achieving a score of 310 on their second try, and finished fourth overall in the tournament. Only five out of the 24 teams that attended advance on to the more competitive provincials.

“Our team is stronger in programming,” said Wight, on what the team does particularly well. “I think the judges liked our robot because when they announced our team for the second place robot design award, they said ‘This team really left their mark on the field.’”

The Wild Goats won the tournament overall, including all four categories, earning them a 1st Place Champion’s Award. Their robot, “Billy the Goat,” managed to earn a score of 345 on their first try. This earned them third place in the robot game category – first went to Laurelwood (375) and second went to R252 (355).

“We definitely gained from the experience of having been involved last year,” said team coach Tricia Alpaugh, of the winning strategy. “We have eight really bright kids who are really hardworking. We keep making a list of things that need to be done, and we just keep working at it.”

Wild Goats member Brooklyn Alpaugh said she was particularly proud of how their robot performed.

“We programmed it to return home not very often … so that we could complete a lot more tasks just in one go, which is very different compared to other teams,” said Brooklyn. “It stayed on the bridge at the last second so we got extra points for doing that as well.”

Another component of the competition is the innovation project: as the theme this year is “City Shaper,” teams are challenged to identify a problem with a building or public space in their community. They then come up with a way to solve the problem, then share and refine that solution.

The Elmira Space Chickens focused on ideas for the accessible washroom to be installed at Gibson Park (Kate’s Place for Everyone) by next summer. The Wild Goats, on the other hand, came up with a “Smart Sorter” that uses artificial intelligence to sort between garbage and recycling to combat improper recycling practices.

Teams must also have core values that include discovery, innovation, impact, inclusion, teamwork, and fun. Wight added that the experience has not only been great for each team’s friendships, but it also gets them thinking about a future career in science.

“It has definitely changed our lives because a lot of us think science is much cooler and want to get jobs in the field,” said Wight. “Presenting is easier for us because we’ve done it a lot, and we know our friends are there to help us if we get stuck on something.”

Each team will be taking a well-earned break for the Christmas holidays before using the judge’s feedback to prepare for the provincial competition at the University of Waterloo on February 1.

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