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Robot challenge takes on energy issues

Twality Middle School Energy Mizers to compete in First Lego League state competition this weekend
by: Barbara Sherman, GEARING UP FOR BATTLE — Gathered around their play board for one of their last practices before the First Lego League state competition this weekend are members of the Twality Middle School Energy Mizers team. From left are Zac Cummings, Ian Schacter, Michael Murray, Alex Good, Riley Ares, Dylan Good and Alan Haynes.

TIGARD - Each year, the First Lego League inspires kids to program Lego robots to complete a series of tasks and then face off against other teams in regional, state and national competitions.

The 2007 theme is 'Energy Resources - Meeting the Global Demand' and challenges students to question how people's energy choices impact the environment, economy and life around the globe.

Lego asks the following questions: How do our personal energy choices to heat our homes, fuel our cars, charge our cell phones, power our computers or even download music to our iPods impact the environment, economy and life around the globe? Which resources should we use and why?

Teams are invited to explore how energy production and consumption choices affect the planet and our quality of life today, tomorrow and for future generations.

Can First Lego League teams find the ultimate solution to this global power puzzle?

The Oregon Robotics Tournament and Outreach Program runs the First Lego League competition from September to January, when teams of students between the ages of 9 and 14 design, build and program autonomous robots to respond to individual tasks as part of the overall challenge; teams also must complete a research project based on an annual theme.

The Twality Middle School Energy Mizers team took third place at the Dec. 16 regional competition at Intel's Jones Farm campus and advanced to the state championships, which will be held at Liberty High School in Hillsboro Jan. 19 and 20.

The team consists of Twality sixth-graders Ian Schacter, Alan Haynes and Dylan Good, Durham Elementary fifth-graders Michael Murray and Riley Ares, St. Anthony School sixth-grader Alex Good, and Carus Middle School sixth-grader Zac Cummings of Canby.

'It's crazy - it was bittersweet when we won,' said Ian. 'It was neat that we won, but we knew it would mean a lot more hard work.'

For its research project, the team did an energy audit of the Joy Theater, which was built 70 years ago on Pacific Highway just west of Hall Boulevard.

For their research project, the boys filled a thick notebook with information gleaned from their tour of the venerable structure plus answers to questions submitted to PGE about energy use.

At the theater, the boys were excited to tour the projection room and see what lurked behind a movie screen as well as walk through the auditorium.

The team determined that solar energy would be the best energy source for the theater, except that the roof would not support the solar infrastructure.

Wind power also was not feasible because city officials would be unlikely to approve a wind turbine on the roof of the theater, and it could be a distraction to passing motorists.

Solar panels that would turn with the sun and not contribute a lot of noise would be another possibility, or maybe a combination of wind and solar, the boys decided.

In the meantime, the group suggested to the theater manager that leaks be plugged and insulation be added to make the building more energy-efficient.

The boys had to come up with a five-minute skit to present the information they learned about their energy audit of the Joy Theater and how they would perform an 'extreme energy makeover.'

'The judges liked our presentation so much that we did it in front of all the teams at the regional competition,' said Ian.

The group also performed its skit in front of the Tigard-Tualatin School Board on Dec. 10.

As part of the project, the team noted that 370,000 more people are expected to live in the metro area by 2020 and that using renewable energy is not an option but a necessity.

The boys, five of whom have been on other Lego teams previously, started planning for the project several months ago and got serious when school started in September. They met twice a week but since the December regional competition, they have been getting together three times per week.

SLX Architects is the team's sponsor and enabled them to purchase one of two robots, as it is critical to have a backup during competitions.

If all goes well at this weekend's competition, the team will complete 10 missions in the 2½-minute-long competition.

The team members had to create a play board exactly like the one used at the tournament to practice putting their robot through its paces. The robot starts from the same place each time, but the boys can put different attachments on it between tasks.

In line with the energy-conservation theme, the robotic tasks include knocking down panels, propelling a car down a track, pushing a pickup and a car to specified spots, moving a power line into place, moving two windmills and four trees into position, and bringing three oil drums from an off-shore oil rig.

Each team is scored equally in four different areas during the competition: 1) robot design - program an efficient robot to complete the assigned challenges on the playing field; 2) research project - present the research in a method of the team's choosing; 3) teamwork - exhibit teamwork and a positive attitude throughout; and 4) technical knowledge - answer questions regarding how the above tasks were completed.

Adults are supposed to maintain a hands-off approach, allowing the young people to do all the building, designing, programming, research and creative pieces. The adults provide guidance, organization and supervision.

The Twality Energy Mizers designed the team logo featuring a thunderbolt, and each boy has a unique name emblazoned on the back of his shirt. There's 'Solar Surfer,' 'Sweet and Solar' 'Static Shock,' 'Professor Zappy,' 'Ask Alex,' 'Shocker' and 'Energy Dude.'

Team coaches are Tom and Ann Murray and Cherise Schacter.

For more information, visit First Lego League on the Web or check out Zac Cummings' blog at zacenergy.blogspot.com.