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Tigard sisters go generic for international science fair

Tesca and Taytlyn Fitzgerald teach a new language to a LEGO robot's mini computer
by: Jennifer Clampet, A GENERIC DESIGN – (From left) Sisters Tesca and Taytlyn Fitzgerald, of Tigard, will head to the International Intel Science and Engineering Fair in Atlanta, Ga., in May.

TIGARD - Imagine building a robot at the age of 11 or 14. With LEGO robotics competitions growing in popularity nationwide, parents and educators don't have to stretch their imaginations too far to envision that.

But now envision 11- and 14-year-old girls taking that robot and the mini computer that comes with it and teaching it a different language.

Today not too much can surprise the master minds that develop microchips and computer software. But when sisters Tesca and Taytlyn Fitzgerald, of Tigard, walked into a regional Intel Science and Engineering Fair in March, the duo threw the judges for a loop.

Not only was their 'How we made our robot spectacular in a generic way' project a winner, but their ages sent the organizers back to the rule books. Could 11-year-old Tesca be part of a winning project in a high-school level competition? The short answer: yes.

Later this month the sister team will travel to Atlanta, Ga., to compete in the International ISEF. In April, the girls attended the international LEGO robotics competition in Atlanta as part of a five-member team called the Fire Breathing Rubber Duckies.

It was from the girls' frustrations with the NXT mini computer for the LEGO robot that their concept for a 'generic robot' was born.

The goal of the LEGO robotics competitions is to get kids thinking about not only engineering robots that can accomplish different tasks but also realizing the need for exact instructions. A program meant to guide a robot to move forward and run into a latch that triggers an item to drop only works if the programmer can give the exact angle at which the robot needs to travel in order to complete its mission.

Now add in some other movements like releasing objects and dropping arms and latches at specific times and students enter the detailed world of robot controls.

And when instructions need to be changed or updated, in come the programmers. The NXT mini computer that's provided for the LEGO competitions operates on a language of pictures and texts.

Unfortunately, because of the language, the programs take about five minutes to download from a laptop to the mini computer.

And according to the Fitzgerald sisters, the download time was just too long, especially when their group was in competitions and needed to download code fast to see if the new instructions would work.

So the programming sisters went generic - with their code that it is. They figured that teaching the NXT to read simple text code was the way to go. Not only could the mini computer download the language in a fraction of the time it took to download the original language, the NXT was also able to store a lot more code.

'We basically taught the NXT (the mini computer) a new language,' Tesca said. The girls taught the computer how to read the text only files.

The shorter download time gave the girls' LEGO team more opportunities to input precise instructions and controls over their robot.

'The judges really liked it. They had never seen anything like it before,' Tesca said.

The girls took what they had learned and created for the LEGO competition and carried it to the regional Intel Science and Engineering Fair in March.

With 11-year-old Tesca and 14-year-old Taytlyn presenting their project, judges had to determine if the girls were even eligible to compete in the high school science fair. But as students of Oregon Connections Academy, a public school they attend from home, the sisters are academically advanced for their ages and considered to be high-school level students

But even among their high-school-aged competitors, the Fitzgerald sisters said they weren't intimidated.

'We were a little shocked the day they notified us,' Taytlyn said. 'We were screaming.'