Program - Resonating to an alternative energy theme, the Banks Bots hope to clean up at Lego robot contests next year
by: Tommy Whitcomb, Aaron Streblow and Tayler Young (above) operate their team’s Lego robot.

Conner Reed frowns, then adjusts a tiny lever on the Lego robot awaiting its turn on the table.

'There,' the sixth-grade boy says with satisfaction, peering out from under a dark blue knit hat. 'It's ready now.'

The computer-animated robot, made of hundreds of colorful plastic Lego pieces, lurches across the platform, which is laid out like a miniature city.

To the delight of onlookers, the machine seamlessly fulfills its first mission: delivering barrels of 'uranium' to a miniature 'power plant.'

It's all a simulation, of course, but Reed is dead serious about the project. The articulate 11-year-old is one of eight sixth-grade students from Banks Elementary School who are hoping to clean up - literally - at a series of robotics competitions this year and next.

They're focused on learning everything they can about alternative energy, in order to win the league's 'power puzzle challenge' in 2008.

The idea is to engage kids in coming up with creative ways to meet the global demand for energy, said head coach Sid Young of Banks.

'They take a hard look at management and conservation issues,' said Young, who has led the team for two years.

Going for first

Calling themselves the Banks Bots, the science-oriented youngsters are working hard to produce a project that'll attract the attention of judges from the FIRST Lego League, sponsor of the competition.

Last year, the Banks team - coached by Sid Young, an engineer, and Oregon Health and Science University researcher Dan Streblow - placed second in a local competition that focused on nanotechnology.

This year, Young and his charges, including his 11-year-old daughter, Sydney, are determined to wow the judging panel with a triple-threat project.

They created an energy audit report on the Forest Grove Aquatic Center, hosted an alternative energy fair at their school on Nov. 28 and built a Lego robot from scratch.

Sporting a forklift and several other nifty features, the 16-inch-tall robot, driven by a hand-held control, installs solar panels on roofs, retrieves oil barrels from oil rigs and constructs a dam on a faux river.

'Our robot is really cool,' Conner Reed said.

Fierce competition

With growing numbers of youngsters adding a scientific layer to their horizon-broadening repertoire, jumping between soccer practice and Lego building, the competition is fierce.

But Banks is becoming recognized as a force to be reckoned with.

On Dec. 8, the Bots won the Young Team trophy at an FLL qualifying tournament for 9- to 14-year-olds. The contest was held at Intel Corporation's Jones Farm campus in Hillsboro.

The Young Team award goes to the top-scoring 'young team,' a squad that includes members who are age 11 or younger, Young added.

'We're headed to the state tournament on Jan. 19 - we're super excited,' said Young. That contest will be at Liberty High School in Hillsboro.

Everyone's input

This year, Banks' budding computer scientists - who meet twice a week at Young's home - are definitely awake at the switch.

'We're using a robot we designed ourselves to learn about alternative energy,' said Reed, adding that his peers, Aaron Streblow and Tayler Young, both 12, were a big part of the brains of the project.

'We depended on everyone's input, though,' Reed said diplomatically.

The whole idea is to 'get kids excited about engineering and science,' Young said.

The FLL's founders 'felt that the U.S. was falling behind in those areas and recognized that we need to start with the kids,' he added.

Oregon, Young said, has the largest number of Lego robotics teams in the nation.

'It's pretty popular,' he observed.

For Kiley Bonin, 11, who's in her second year on the Banks Bots squad, collaborating as a team to solve problems is a big draw.

'I like how we have to all work together to figure out the programming,' she said.

While team members were doing research on alternative fuels, Bonin studied ethanol, methanol and biodiesel, learning that the latter fuel 'has a couple of faults to it,' she said.

'They're having to cut down rain forests to make it,' she said.

Pool cues

As part of their three-pronged project, team members traveled to the Forest Grove Aquatics Center in September to perform an energy audit, Bonin said.

There, they met with parks superintendent Tom Gamble and took a behind-the-scenes tour of the facilities.

'He showed us the boilers that heat the water for the pools,' Bonin said.

The students found that the City of Forest Grove, which operates the center, 'mostly did a good job' in terms of energy efficiency, Reed noted.

'They were pretty efficient, but they could do some things better,' he said.

Bonin listed two things the city could do to improve.

'One of their main energy losses was due to evaporation of pool water,' she noted. 'So, they could cover their pools.'

Also, she suggested, city workers could 'lower the temperature of the pools a couple of degrees' to save energy.

Banks Bots members later shared their report with members of the Forest Grove City Council at a meeting on Dec. 10.

Creative problem solving

It's been exciting for team members' parents to see their children blossom into critical thinkers, said Kindel Bonin, Kiley's mom.

Her son Kobey, 9, is a member of the Mad Lego Scientists, Banks' junior team.

'I think it's really cool to see the girls do the programming, because it hasn't always been that way,' said Kindel. 'The whole teamwork process is really pretty incredible.'

Gabe Schnaubelt, who coaches the younger team, said his goal is to 'introduce the kids to the sciences' in a meaningful way.

Schnaubelt, a software programmer at Intel, got involved when his daughter, Kayla, 9, showed some interest in the Lego league.

'It's all about creative problem solving, and the material and methods are just awesome,' Schnaubelt said. 'The more exposure they get to this type of thing, the better.

Besides, he added, 'they have a great time doing it.'

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