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Gainesville Middle School hosts LEGO Education Showcase
Victor Perez uses LEGOs to build what he sees as a future model of Gainesville Middle School. - photo by J. Bryan Stiles

Watch a video from Wednesday's event

The robot whirs along, making a sharp 90-degree turn, continuing and then taking another turn before plowing into a button that, when pushed, propels a LEGO dog on a skateboard. The dog has middle-school students to thank for the boost, as the Gainesville Middle School’s Robotics Team was behind the shove.

The team showed off its skills during its LEGO Education Showcase event on Wednesday night. Thousands of LEGO pieces and hundreds of Gainesville residents came to the event, which allowed children and parents alike to build using the LEGO pieces and get acquainted with the robotics team.

The event was made possible by a grant from the Education Blueprints Association, a nonprofit organization that works to provide learning resources and programs.

Dawn Watkins, a teacher at Gainesville Middle School, applied for the grant last year, and the school was one of 100 nationwide to be selected.

“Just to get 40,000 LEGO pieces would be expensive,” Watkins said, adding that there were 200 bases for building during the event. “With the grant, this was all free.”

Wednesday’s event had two main focuses, Watkins said.

“This is Gainesville City Schools’ 120th anniversary, so we’re having them build what our future will be,” she said. “The other part is that our three robotics teams will be on hand demonstrating.

“I wanted to see a lot of people having fun, but I also love to see people getting to appreciate what the robotics teams have done.”

The three robotics teams each showed off their projects for the First LEGO League’s 2012 Senior Solutions Challenge, a competition that tasks students to program a robot and develop a solution to a problem while being guided by core values.

“Each of the teams has something going on where they’re working on awareness for the challenges that seniors might face,” Watkins said.

Team Robopachyderms was working on a garden box that could automatically rise and be lowered with a pedal, said team member Pratyusha Karnati.

“Most seniors have a problem bending over so we wanted to focus on improving gardening because a lot of seniors like to garden,” Karnati said.

Team members Sydeney Cochran, Sara Cook and Michelle Razo showed off some of the work the team had done with a “senior suit.”

“We saw this on MIT’s website and what it was for is to show the challenges of seniors,” Cochran said, demonstrating the glasses with sandpapered lenses to represent cataracts.

The team also had gloves with the joints taped, weights, earmuffs and bubble wrap to help simulate some of the physical changes of an elderly person.

“Little things can be hard for them,” Cook said, pointing to the pill bottle which is difficult to open with the stiff joints.

Team Robo Stomps was working on the Pill Dispenser 3000, which would sound and automatically open one of the seven pillboxes for seniors.

“People said they had some problems remember(ing) to take their medicine,” team member Spencer Sumner said. “So you can’t open the box until it’s time so no one can steal or add medicine.”

The team Gainesville Middle School Robotics had a blueprint displayed for the Mail Grabber, which would help seniors bring in mail without having to move.

While showing off their senior solutions, students were also testing the robots they programmed using the computer.

“There’s a lot of math involved (in getting the robots to move),” Watkins said. “Even if they want to turn, they need to do the circumference of the circle, including the width of the wheel.”

Some of the robots were moving miniature chairs, picking up items, flipping levers to turn on the television and doing other activities.

“This is a great show of the students’ talents,” said principal Ken Martin. “This is also a great way to bring in the community and introduce them to our school. You see these elementary students here and this is their future.”

Those who attended to build with the LEGO pieces were tasked with creating their vision for Gainesville in the future, or constructing what Gainesville was like 120 years ago.

The models featured a wide variety of visions from futuristic poultry plants surrounded by spiders to cars with propellers on a multilevel area full of plants and animals. One vision had the Earth’s surface barren and all of the buildings and people underwater.

The activity was not just a good use of imagination, it also helped participants learn in an enjoyable way, Watkins said.

“People get to have fun while building,” she said. “And you can’t help but learn when you’re building.”