On a recent Wednesday night, in a packed living room in Federal Way, a group of kids gather around a table playing with robots.
These aren’t ordinary robots though, or ordinary kids for that matter.
For one thing, all of these kids are home-schooled in and around the Federal Way community. Another reason, they’re a team involved in FIRST Lego League, a nation-wide STEM competition that looks at building teamwork, leadership skills and knowledge in various STEM fields.
Federal Way’s team, the Spartans, were eager to share their experience working in this competition, with most of them competing again for the third year.
The team is made up of nine kids and three coaches. The kids, aged 9 -14 years old, are Naomi and Blythe Brown, Michael and Josiah Montgomery, Taylor and Elliot Kwan, Andrew Rygel, David Livingstone and Lucy McConnell.
Two of the three coaches are Justin Rygel and Bob Montgomery.
Head coach Kelvin Kwan, who has two kids on the team as well, said in past experiences, the team didn’t fare so well. There were issues of a lack of teamwork and leadership, as well as a lack of research for the project component of the competition.
However, this year Kwan believes the Spartans have a good chance at winning the competition. Instead of doing a lot of hands-on coaching like they would in the past, Kwan said he and the other two coaches took a step back and decided to let the kids step up to be the leaders.
And step up they did.
Kwan said the kids really took charge, and it helped some of the kids grow much more into their leadership skills.
The kids all had varying reasons why they wanted to remain part of this competition. For Taylor, he wanted to convince his brother Elliot to join him, and he also wanted to learn more about programming.
“Also it helped me learn new things about leadership,” Taylor said.
David was excited for the chance to keep learning, and he also thought building Lego robots was an awesome way to spend time.
Lucy said she wanted to join a team and make new friends.
“I wanted to be part of something that was more unique,” she said.
The kids themselves are part of why Kwan believes the team will advance after the coming state finals. All of the kids have different interests, but work very well as a team.
Kwan said going on to state finals means a lot to the whole team.
“That’s a huge deal for us …” he said. “It shows the kids they can compete at that level and if they work together, they can accomplish bigger and better things.”
They’re already thinking about what they’d like to major in when they go to college, and their interests range from music and art to mechanical engineering and programming. However, they all agree that designing robots and researching solutions to problems about space travel is pretty cool.
To ensure their robots are functioning correctly, the kids use a computer program to tell the robot how and when to move.
For the robotics part of the competition, the kids needed to design a robot that could complete as many missions as possible in under two-and-a-half minutes. There is a possibility of over 400 combinations of missions to complete, so the idea is for the kids to choose missions they know their robot can complete quickly that yield higher points.
David said the robot works by using sensors on the board its placed on and the computer program connected with it to determine what its movements will be.
The research part of the competition had the kids looking at ways to reduce space radiation for astronauts, and they also created a video to go along with their presentation. In their quest to reduce space radiation, they created something called an Astronaut Safety Sleeping Pod, or ASSP. This pod is designed to keep the astronaut safe in hibernation during space travel, so radiation cannot enter the cells and cause damage.
Some of the damage radiation can cause include cancer and nerve damage, Lucy said in the video play.
Inside the pod, a special agent is administered via I.V. to help reduce oxygen intake and blood flow to help achieve the hibernation state.
There is also a separate I.V. that administers nutrients to the astronaut in liquid form.
As part of their research, the kids came up with a play to help explain their research findings, inspired by the recent “Spiderman: Homecoming” film.
Naomi said they modeled their play after the opening line of the detention scene Captain America was in.
“Remember the Captain America videos?” She said, “Well, we have a little announcer on the T.V., and his opening sentence is, ‘So you want to go to Mars?’”
Kwan said the kids came up with the play idea and edited the video themselves, with no help from the coaches.
In order to score highly and move forward in the competition, the entire team needs to be in sync. Scoring more points in the robotics portion does not necessarily mean their team will advance if their research is not thorough and well done.
The point of the competition, Kwan said, is to look at how the team functions overall; how they work together. It’s designed to inspire the next generation of leaders in the STEM field.
A total of 450 teams competed to be part of the Western Washington State Finals, with the Spartans being one of only 32 teams chosen to participate.
Kwan said the team got a grant of $250, with their total budget being a little under $1,000.
The state finals happen on March 17 at ShoWare Center, 625 W. James St., Kent. For more information, visit www.firstwa.org.