Inspiring a New Generation of Engineers

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FIRST LEGO League and Junior FIRST LEGO League (left to right, from front row): Isaac Che, Elizabeth Che, Joseph Chaney, Zachary Labon, Rebekah Cox, Kira Labon, Peter Collings, Noah Hitchcock, Caleb Lutz, Jacob Lutz, Jonah Hitchcock, Fiona Chaney, Joel Dille, Ben Che, James Lutz, Elly Frey, Caleb Collings, Jared Lewis

In the hallways of Geneva College′s Science & Engineering (S&E) building, college students are preparing for careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). But they aren′t the only ones. In the fall of 2009, a group of elementary- and middle-school students designed, built and programmed a robot to compete in FIRST LEGO League, a worldwide competition designed to build character and inspire kids to pursue the STEM fields.

The inspiration behind this team began with a discussion among a group of homeschooling moms in the Beaver Valley. Julia Chaney ′92, home educator, Geneva psychology grad and daughter of now-retired Spanish professor Dr. Richard Evans, thought the FIRST competition would be a great opportunity for the kids′ educational and personal growth.

"It′s not just about robots, but also about how children of all skills, levels and abilities work on a problem together," Chaney says. "I love that. FIRST Robotics helps kids believe they can go into the STEM careers."

The team (ages 9 - 13) called themselves the Golden Arrows and registered for Pittsburgh competition, which would be held at Carnegie Mellon University National Robotics Engineering Center in December. The topic for this year′s competition was "smart moves."

"The children were challenged to design a robot to accomplish various tasks on a large table-top game board/field set-up. The robots could be designed to complete any mission on this field set-up in order to accumulate points," Chaney says.

One of the team members was Isaac Che, the son of Geneva College engineering faculty David Che. As soon as Che heard about the project, he thought it would be great to get Geneva students involved as mentors.

Senior mechanical engineering major Joel Dille was the first to respond to Che′s request for a student mentor. With his love for kids and robotics work, the opportunity seemed like a perfect fit. However, Joel didn′t realize that the students would be so young. He was a little overwhelmed at first, but it didn′t take him long to settle in and enjoy the experience.

"Joel, together with my older son Benjamin, would come on Friday evenings after class to work with them on their robots′ programming," Che says.

The Golden Arrows′ research project topic was to transport mobile surgical units, especially to mountainous places where it′s difficult for planes to land. The mentors′ primary job was to help the kids with design and programming. There was a pretty steep learning curve in those areas, but the youngsters′ creativity made up for much of the knowledge they lacked.

"All of the kids had excellent design ideas. I love the imagination of children," Joel says.

Joel and Ben worked with the kids throughout the fall semester, and Julia′s brother Rich Evans ′90, a Geneva engineering graduate who now works for NASA, also came several times to volunteer and coach the team. All the long hours of hard work paid off, and by the time the December competition rolled around, the robot was ready to go.

There were 72 teams at the competition, and each had to compete on the same field set-up. The competition also included an oral presentation. The Golden Arrows came in 52nd out of 72 on the challenge course, but they placed 20th overall. That was a good result for a first-year team.

Students in the FIRST LEGO League participated in the December competition (left to right from front row): Isaac Che, Peter Collings, Jacob Lutz, Fiona Chaney, Joel Dille, Ben Che, Noah Hitchcock, James Lutz, Elly Frey, Caleb Collings, Jared Lewis

"This was not just a robotics competition-it was a combination of all the skills needed to go into these STEM fields," Chaney says. "Students are judged 25 percent on their robot′s performance, 25 percent on design, 25 percent on research and 25 percent on teamwork."

The FIRST LEGO League competition is held every fall, and by September 2010, the team plans to be back in the competition designing a new robot. And maybe-in a few more years-some of those kids might be students at Geneva College, getting ready to put research, teamwork, knowledge and imagination to the test in STEM careers.