At the end of January, more than 500 middle school students converged on Penn’s campus to test their engineering skills and compete in the FIRST LEGO League robotics tournament.
“We want to show students that science and engineering can be fun,” says Rebecca Stein, associate director for research and educational outreach at the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and event director for the tournament.
More than 100 teams from the region battled at qualifying events, and the top 50 advanced to the competition in Irvine Hall.
This year’s theme was “food,” and teams were judged in three areas: their robot’s performance, a research project, and “core values,” such as teamwork and sportsmanship.
The game portion of the tournament required the teams to send their robots on “missions,” such as navigating to the game board’s “beach” and collecting LEGO “fish” with a scoop. Teams were informed about the board and missions ahead of time, and could modify their robots between missions. But once in play, the robots had to work autonomously.
For their research projects, the teams were asked to develop a solution to a food-based problem of their choice, such as keeping food fresh during transport. Teams were graded on the quality of their research, the creativity of their proposed solution, and their overall presentation skills.
“Green Machine,” a local Girl Scout team, took the top prize, and will travel to St. Louis later this year for the Food Factor World Festival, a celebration for winning teams around the world.
In 2007, Penn teamed with the School District of Philadelphia to run local FIRST LEGO League events, and became an official partner with FIRST Robotics in 2011, allowing the University to host the Eastern Pennsylvania championships.
It’s not all fun and hot-dog shaped hats, however; Penn also leads training sessions for team-leading teachers throughout the year. The objective is ultimately to inspire and prepare the next generation of engineers at the earliest possible age.
“Engineering is a tough subject and kids need to start preparing to study before they even reach high school,” Stein says. “We want to put them on a path so they will be ready to attend an engineering school like Penn’s.”
Originally published on February 9, 2012