Neophyte Island teams rock the LEGO Robotic world

The Assiginack teams, Blackbird and Assiginack, pose together at Dynamic Earth, from left are: Brooke Gibeault, Margit Alberti (mentor), Samuel Pennings, Chris Mara (mentor), Christopher White, Xavier Mara, Rowan Leblanc, Sebastian Mara (mini-mentor), Steven White, Noah Holmes, Ryan Kuntsi, Nevaeh Giles, Mark Gibeault (mentor), Dane Gibeault and Ethan Leblanc.

SUDBURY—LEGO Robotics mentor Chris Mara has developed a bit of a flair for understatement. “It was a good weekend,” he said. “All of the Manitoulin teams were rookies this year, but they wound up doing really well.” This following the performance of four Manitoulin Island teams at the 13th Annual FIRST LEGO® League Regional Qualifying Tournament held December 2 at Sudbury’s Dynamic Earth that saw one of them going onto the provincials in London.

On their inaugural outing at the competition the Island teams certainly did all score well, with an Assiginack team placing second overall and qualifying to go on to the provincial competition January 28 at the University of Waterloo.

Each year the LEGO League competitions, the elementary version of the First Robotics competition that Wiikwemkoong High School has been competing in for a number of years, are held with a central theme. This year that theme was Hydrodynamics, centering on all things water.

Teams are made up of two to 10 members aged 9 to 14.

There were two teams from Assiginack (both municipally-sponsored teams), one simply named Assiginack and the second bearing the historically evocative moniker of Blackbird. The other Island teams were elementary school efforts, one each from Central Manitoulin Public School and Wiikwemkoong.

There were four sections to the competition, the mission table (where they had to complete as many tasks as possible in two-and-a-half minutes), a five-minute innovation presentation, a five-minute core values presentation, a five-minute team values presentation and engineering design presentation (where competitors present their strategies behind their robots).

The missions included things like flushing a LEGO toilet, which then filled a pipe which in turn released water and sludge. “The robot would then have to do something like flip a manhole cover,” said Mr. Mara. Other tasks might have meant replacing a piece of broken pipe with a new section.

Teams were awarded points for each completed mission. There was a lot of pressure in the competition, with barely two and a half minutes for each, but the Manitoulin teams performed marvellously under pressure.

“They really have to think strategically and have to retain their composure under pressure while they are up on the stage at Dynamic Earth in front of everyone,” said Mr. Mara. “They have to come up with the specialized attachments to accomplish each task. They showed a lot of poise.” Coding is a critical part of the operation as each robot must be told how to reach the key checkpoints. Mr. Mara noted that the teams have to know their robotic creations “inside and out.”

The Assiginack Blackbird team received the highest overall score in the engineering design component. The two Assiginack teams tied for fourth overall in the mission component. The Assiginack team came up roses, however, scoring second overall for a berth at the provincials at Waterloo.

CMPS had the first LEGO Robotics team formed on the Island.

Each of the teams had their own focus and take on the hydrodynamics theme.

The Assiginack Blackbird team scored impressive kudos for their focus on agriculture. “The judges said that was the first time they had seen that in these competitions,” said Mr. Mara.

The CMPS team focussed their approach around water recovery in hockey arenas, also something near and dear to rural communities.

The other Assiginack team focussed on gray water recovery and the Wiikwemkoong team took a very timely approach as well, looking at ways and means of dealing with drinking water that has been contaminated with mercury and arsenic.

The teams received a bit of a teaser on next year’s theme while they were at the competition that is sure to generate excitement for next year’s teams. “Space,” said Mr. Mara.

As for this year’s competitors Mr. Mara had some high praise. “We really didn’t expect to do this well on the first time out. It is a real tribute to them and they are a real tribute to Manitoulin.”