On Saturday, January 31st, more than 40 spectators piled into the stands of the sunken basketball court referred to as “The Pit” at Morse High School.  They were there to watch eleven robots with unique designs compete for the title of Sumo Robot Champion. Pair by pair the robots were activated, trying to push each other out of the ring without falling out themselves. The spectators hung on the edge of their seats as they watched the tiny competitors in action.   

The robots, made from LEGO Mindstorms kits, were built by teams of two or three students.  The winning design, a tank-like robot named “Tiger” was created by Bath Middle School 7th graders Emmy Lou Varian, Jacob Demers and Gaige Kindlemann.  In second place was another tank-like robot named “Bacon-Bot” created by Woolwich Central School 7th graders Noah Doughty and Mason Harrington.  The third place robot, a four wheeled design named “Tank” was built by Bath Middle School 8th graders Bow Moore and Tristan Merrill.

Like so many good ideas, the notion of hosting a LEGO Robotics Sumo competition came from one of my students.  In 2010 I was teaching 5th grade and my student Josh, a quiet 10 year old, was obsessed with LEGOs.  It seemed like the only way we could talk with each other about anything was to involve LEGOs.  Josh casually informed me one day that there was a thing called LEGO Robotics, and that some robotics kits were actually floating around our school district somewhere.  I had never heard of LEGO Robotics, but I did some research and sure enough, it really was a thing.  I found six complete kits along with bins of parts in a storage closet at the high school.  Soon after, with the help of Josh and Bath Middle School teacher Don Seymour, the RSU 1 LEGO Robotics Team was founded at Bath Middle School.

In 2014 RSU 1 received a generous grant from the George Davenport Trust allowing us to update and expand the robotics program.  We now teach robotics to over thirty students in two elementary schools and two middle schools.   Our curriculum covers programming, design engineering and construction concepts.  Writing is embedded in the experience —students have to submit  a written application to join the team, and they also have to write a clear description of how each of their robots functions.

Robots are complex creations that require the ability to imagine, design and connect multiple systems.  STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) learning opportunities like these are a critical component of education as we prepare our children for life in a dynamic, changing world. Working together in teams builds skills like collaboration, communication, creativity and perseverance.

Watching the Sumo action unfold, it was clear that the kids were engaged, motivated and proud.  I hope this is the first of many years of Robot Competitions.  It’s that all-too-rare kind of learning experience that doesn’t feel like it’s a learning experience because it is so much fun.

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