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Teams compete in LEGO challenge and even invent patent-worthy products

POSTED: February 6, 2012 1:30 a.m.

Lego robotics at Lakeview Academy and Gainesville Middle

Students from Lakeview Academy and Gainesville Middle School show off their Lego robotics creations.

SCOTT ROGERS/The Times

The Gainesville Middle School robotics team demonstrates one of the challenges their devices will face during state-level competition.

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Students from two local schools may have been building things with their LEGO pieces, but they weren’t playing around. They were creating prize-winning robots.

Robotics teams from Gainesville Middle School and Lakeview Academy have come out on top in various portions of the First LEGO League 2011 Food Factor Challenge.

"They’re judged on several different areas," said Lynn Zottnick, one of the coaches for the three, Lakeview Academy teams.

"One area is the robot game. Another area focuses on team work and then the final part is their research project."

Each year, the challenges are based on different, real-life scientific subjects. Previous challenges include: Mission Mars, City Sights and Volcanic Panic.

At the state-level competition last month, the Gainesville Middle group, team Robopachyderms, won the Mechanical Design Award. That award is presented to the team "that designs and develops a mechanically sound robot that is durable, efficient and highly capable of performing challenge missions."

During the robot game, each team was given 2 minutes and 30 seconds to complete tasks like removing LEGO-sized pieces of "bacteria" from food storage areas.

"Our goal at the beginning was just to get seven tasks done, but we’ve gotten like 10 or 11, so we were very happy about that," said Sidney Cochran, one of two "board runners" for Gainesville Middle.

"Sometimes when the mission wouldn’t work, we’d be kinda bummed, but then we’d keep going and say "Oh, we’ll get it next time.’ You get three chances at the board and then they take your best score out of all your runs."

Even though they didn’t qualify for the national-level competition, Gainesville’s coach, Dawn Watkins is still impressed with her students’ performance.

"I spent first two weeks at the beginning of the year teaching them how to program the robots, but then, the wonderful thing about these kids is they just took it from there," Watkins said.

"I can open the door and let them in and they make it happen. We’ve been in the top of every group we’ve gone to — their robot finished sixth overall (at state) — which is amazing for a first year program."

Lakeview’s Orange Lions team earned the Innovative Solution Award at the state competition, which was held at Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta. The innovation award is given to a team with an "exceptionally well-considered and creative" solution for the group’s researched problem.

For the project-portion of the competition, the fifth- through eighth-grade members of the Orange Lions decided to focus on hand sanitizing during food preparation.

"The problems we discovered were food handlers with unclean hands and (people who) would wash their hands but not thoroughly enough, so it would still spread contamination," said Nicholas Mulka, member of the Orange Lions.

"Our solution to the problem was to create a bracelet that would use plasma technology to sanitize your hands at certain intervals of time. The electrically charged ions (in the plasma rays) kill the bacteria on your hands.

"In some hospitals, they have some prototypes of plasma sanitizers, so it has been proven to clean hands."

For their project, the students consulted with various experts in the food industry and researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

The students’ project was so feasible, their Georgia Tech mentor’s encouraged them to pursue a patent for their idea. According to Zottnick, they’ve submitted the paperwork.

They’ve also entered the project for consideration for the Global Innovation Award with the First LEGO League. Part of the competition requires the group to gain community support through an online voting system.

"Out of 140 global submissions, (on Friday we were) in 26th place. You can vote once daily, per computer," Zottnick said.

"If they win, they will be connected with experts in marketing and product development to help them take their product to market."

Although Lakeview’s Blue Lions team didn’t pick up a state-level prize, they did earn a Champion’s Award at the regional competition back in December. For their research project, the group created a "Gluten Buster," which was designed to help people with Celiac’s disease avoid gluten-laden foods.

"Whenever they go out to eat, they tell their server they’re allergic to gluten and they have to trust the restaurant when they say there’s no gluten in their food," said Jackson Pratt, a Blue Lion.

"The Gluten Buster would scan their meal. If the indicator light turns green, it’s safe. If it turns red, it has gluten and they shouldn’t eat it."

The school’s White Lions team didn’t get to compete at the state-level competition, but they designed an indoor garden box for apartment dwellers who lack access to an outdoor garden.

Although they’ve reached their finish line for this year’s competition, the students are already turning their sights toward next year.

"Next year’s challenge has a senior citizen’s theme," said Pratyusha Karnati, a member of the Gainesville Middle team.

"It’s dealing with the challenges they face, so we were thinking of going to the retirement center to talk with them about some of their problems to help us prepare."

The team is also working to learn more about how their robots work and how to incorporate more components like sensors.

"One of our goals for next year is making it to state again and getting in the top three," said Michelle Razo, Gainesville Middle team member.

"So we have to start practicing now. We want to be ready."



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