Educator Features

FIRST Trip Around the World
Students prepare a LEGO robot for competition
Learn about science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and the entire world will be open to you. Many students have heard that, but a group from a NASA Explorer School in Philadelphia discovered just how true it is. Thanks to their work with robotics, these NES students literally had a world of opportunity open up to them.

Image to left: Sa'ood and Patricia realign the robot and set the program during the first round of the competition. Credit: NASA

Students at Dr. Anna Howard Shaw Middle School in Philadelphia have been involved in the FIRST LEGO League competition, calling themselves the "Shawbotics Robotics Team." FIRST, which stands for "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology," hosts and organizes competitions that motivate students to learn about science and technology through exciting and unique hands-on experience. Students get to design and build their own robots, and then enter them into competition against other teams' creations. Among the competitions is the LEGO League, in which teams build and program robots to perform tasks using LEGO Mindstorm kits. The program is made possible by partnerships with other organizations -- including NASA -- that have played a key role in supporting FIRST.

Earlier this year, U.S. FIRST officials received a rare invitation for an American team to participate in an overseas competition. Since there are over 80 FIRST LEGO League tournaments in the United States, and only 29 in other countries, it's unusual for U.S. teams to participate in overseas competitions. When this opportunity came along, though, there was one problem. The FIRST Japan Robotics No Limits Challenge Tournament, in Aichi, Japan, was only weeks away. That didn't leave much time for a team to raise the money necessary to make the trip. But the Shawbotics team proved to be up to the challenge.
The Shawbotics team at Shaw Middle School

Image to right: Members of the Shawbotics group are (from left) Corey, Keisha Thompson, Marlon Thomas, DeAndre Baldwin, Indra James, Sa'ood, Amber, Amber, Janet Hudson, Patricia, Rochelle Hailey, Ashley, Ward McCrea and Keith Sevcik. (Not pictured: Joseph) Credit: NASA

When U.S. FIRST selected Shaw Middle School to represent the nation in the Japanese competition, the school had only two weeks to raise $30,000. But, with the help of organizations that were partnered with Shaw as a NASA Explorer School, Shawbotics team coach Janet Hudson was able to raise the money in time. Carole Smith, as director of the Philadelphia Mayor's Commission on Technology, sponsored the school's application for a grant from Pennsylvania Governor Edward Rendell's office that covered the cost of the trip. (The school encountered a friendly face in applying for the grant -- their contact was Joseph Certaine, himself a Shaw alumnus.) Thanks to the money raised, the seven students and seven adults were able to attend the No Limits Challenge Tournament. They were among a total of 14 teams, from six countries, that participated in the competition.

This is not the first time the school's participation in the NES program has benefited the Shawbotics program. "The Shaw NES team had the opportunity to visit several NASA centers and participate in professional development sessions which made them privy to state-of-the-art robotics, such as robotic arms used to make repairs on the space station, robots used in communications, the robonaut and the latest technology in robotics science," Hudson said.

According to Hudson, the competitive environment of the tournament led the students to improve their robotics skills. "They learned to trouble-shoot even better in a shorter amount of time," Hudson said. "The team used problem-solving skills. There was a problem with the robot's programs right before the competition; however, the team quickly reprogrammed the robot, tested it out and got it working right."

However, not everything they took away from the experience had to do with robotics, Hudson said.
The Shawbotics group in front of a Buddhist temple

Image to left: In addition to attending the competition, the team also was able to see some sights in Japan, like this Buddhist temple. Credit: NASA

"The team learned that when you are in another country, you follow their customs," one of the students, Amber, said. Hudson added, "The Japanese were very nice and helpful. The team learned to respect people from other nations. They enjoyed the tour of Tokyo, visiting the different worshiping temples, seeing the different types of architecture, interacting with students from different countries and riding the speed train."

While the team was not one of the top winners, Hudson said that receiving medals of recognition for their participation was one of the most exciting parts of the trip for the team members. Another highlight, she said, was when all of the teams from around the world signed each other's shirts during the social event following the competition.

The FIRST Robotics LEGO League is considered the "little league" of the Robotics Competition, designed to give younger students a chance to get involved. Through the international program, students ages 9 through 14 form teams of up to 10 members to enter the competitions. Teams have eight weeks to design, build and program their robots to meet certain challenges, and then enter competitions around the world to let their robots "battle" those of other teams.

Related Resources
NASA Explorer Schools
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NASA -- 2005 FIRST Robotics Competition
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David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services