Students Make a Difference
A team of Alabama fifth-graders thought it would be a wise move if drivers didn’t text or talk on cell phones while driving. So for part of the 2009 FIRST LEGO League Challenge the team proposed a solution, one that would be particularly useful for parents who want to prevent teenage children from using cell phones while driving.
FIRST LEGO League, for students in grades 4-8, has two components. Student teams design and build a robot using LEGO MINDSTORMS kits and then program and test the creation to accomplish "missions" on a playing field. Teams also explore a real-life problem within that year's themed challenge area and develop an innovative solution to that problem either by creating something that doesn't exist or building upon something that does. FIRST LEGO League is part of the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, or FIRST, challenges, which engage students age 6 through high school in hands-on robotics.
The 2009 FIRST LEGO League challenge, called Smart Move, charged teams to look at their communities and transportation and research a way to use technology to improve a transportation problem. The problem identified by the FIRST LEGO League team at Jones Valley Elementary School in Huntsville, Ala., was texting and talking on phones while driving. Students wanted to find a way to make roads safer by preventing drivers from using cell phones behind the wheel. The students' proposal, called "Wise Drive," received first runner-up in the local competition, sponsored by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.
Jones Valley teacher Kristy Dunn said students were passionate about finding a solution to their problem because the issue hit so close to home. Several high school students in the Huntsville area had been in car crashes recently where cell phone use was a factor.
"I didn't have to make them do a lot of this work," Dunn said. "They came to me with ideas in talking about this with their family and doing research on their own. I think that's why it was so exciting is because they could see the impact to them and their own families."
Students said they wanted to come up with a solution because they didn't want themselves or someone in their family being killed or hurt because someone was driving while on the phone. "We thought that's a really big problem for teenagers, and you always hear about it on the news," said Joanna. "A lot of our siblings are teenagers, and I wouldn’t want my brother to die."
Dunn said students first had to learn how cell phone technology works and what kinds of technology could be used to block cell signals. Students then researched what devices were already out there that could be used to address their problem.
In their research, they found a device, about the size of a smoke detector, that would send a signal in a certain distance radius where cell phones couldn’t be used in that radius. Students liked this concept and came up with several potential applications, including placing a smaller version of the device on the driver's keychain or placing it on the roof of the car.
"We couldn't use a device on a key because someone could just take it off," Thomas said.
Team member William said the problem with putting it on the roof of the car is it would block everyone in the car. "But if we put it in the headrest and shortened the wave, it would only block the driver," William explained.
The idea presented in the FIRST LEGO League project was to place the cell signal blocker in the driver's headrest where only the driver's cell phone wouldn't work. "We want people in the other seats to use their cell phone, just not the driver," said Sam.
Students thought that only telling people about the dangers of cell phones and driving wasn't enough, that people will do it anyway. "The only way they are going to stop is if we invent technology to stop it," said Michael.
As part of the project, students researched the dangers of driving while texting or talking on phones. Some of the statistics students found are that drivers who text while driving are 23 times more likely to be in a collision than drivers who don't text. Also, driver inattention due to cell phone use is a factor in more than one million crashes in North America each year. Students read testimonials from people who had been in accidents where people were hurt or killed because a driver was using the phone.
Two students attended the Alabama Distracted Driving Conference where, from second-row seats, they listened to the latest research on the subject and heard from U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray Lahood about the dangers of distracted driving.
Dunn said students wanted to share their research and their project with the community. One of the students created a website about the project. Another student wrote a letter to the mayor of Huntsville asking the city to sign a resolution to bring attention to safe driving and cell phone use. The mayor signed a resolution to that effect, and the city has since enacted a no-texting-while-driving law.
The team also became involved in supporting a state law restricting cell phone use while driving. Students contacted their local representative and distributed information about the bill from their booth at the regional competition.
NASA is one of several organizations that make the robotics competition possible by partnering with FIRST in support of the agency's goal of attracting and retaining students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines.
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Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services