Adults play with LEGOs in Juneau

Posted: Sunday, June 27, 2010

JUNEAU - Do you ever find yourself sitting on the floor building something out of LEGOs long after your child has wandered off to do something else? LEGOs have been inspiring creative impulses in people of all ages for decades. In addition to occupying our children for hours, they provide a link to the inner child that remains alive and well in most adults.

Tapping the youthful energy of the many adults who volunteer to support its educational activities, the Juneau Economic Development Council's SpringBoard program came up with a bright idea to raise money for the FIRST LEGO League student tournaments it coordinates throughout Alaska each school year: FLL Corporate Challenge, an event of friendly competition that reconnects adults with the creative play of childhood through LEGO-based robotics. The Corporate Challenge took place on Sunday, June 20 at the Baranof Hotel.

Four teams - most of them associated with local businesses - purchased LEGO MINDSTORM robotics kits, designed and built their robots, programmed them to accomplish a series of maneuvers, and practiced putting them through their paces in the weeks leading up to Sunday's Challenge. Then in each of three qualifying rounds last Sunday, the four teams were given two-and-a-half-minute periods in which to accumulate points by successfully completing as many tasks as they could. The two highest scoring teams met in a final round to determine the winner.

The team of Wostmann & Associates, Inc. came out on top, beating a State of Alaska team for the championship. The other teams were Alaska Pacific Bank, which took third place, and Resource Data, Inc.

The Corporate Challenge was open to the public free of charge, but it supported SpringBoard's FLL activities for local students in two important ways.

The robot kits each cost over $400, and the four teams each purchased a kit for the Challenge. They all then donated their kits back to SpringBoard, which will use them to start new school teams this coming school year.

Participants' comments on the Challenge reflected both common themes and unique approaches, but they were unanimously enthusiastic about their participation.

Will Belknap, a programmer for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, said, "It was a very compelling, mind-challenging type of event. I'm used to programming at work where you can pretty much expect your program to execute the same way every time, but when you have the added variables of the robot's physical movements and unexpected things going on around it, getting repeatable results is more difficult."

Belknap's nine-year-old son Patrick, who inspired him to participate, went with his dad to a FLL tournament two years ago and would have liked to be on a team last year, but his school didn't have one. This year he will be able to join a team and Belknap is looking forward to being among the team's mentors.

Torsten Ernst, programmer for the Wostmann team, had a similar experience. "There were a lot of days when we were taking three steps back," he said, "but we used those as opportunities to completely rethink the robot design and our approach to that particular mission."

"We had a host of cool sensors to use - light, impact, ultrasonic and sound - and some pretty grandiose plans for incorporating them into the robot," said Ernst, whose team got support from Chris Benshoof and David Hamp of Anchorage business partner PangoMedia. "We thought up some really complex ways to design attachments to complete the missions, but we soon found that complexity was something to avoid."

In the end, the Wostmann robot just used a single light sensor. "Looking back, I think we had the most basic robot at the competition," Ernst said, "but it was solid and so was our programming." Manchee said Alaska Pacific Bank's robot "was also very simplistic, and it worked. I just defined the tasks and systematically tried to attack them with the least amount of effort."

Speaking of his competitor's impressive performance, Belknap said, "The Wostmann robot was so reliable! Even if mine did everything I told it to, I couldn't have caught them." McLean added, "The key to Wostmann's success is that they worked hard at it, put a lot of hours in, and have smart people on the team."

Proud of his team's efforts, Wostmann CEO Sander Schijvens touted the value of JEDC's SpringBoard program in providing technology education for Juneau's youth.

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