Each year, participants in the FIRST LEGO League robotics competition are presented with a challenge which they must take on as a team using their skills in science, technology, engineering and math. This year, as part of the “City Shaper Challenge,” kids were asked, “What if you could build a better world? Where would you begin?”
For a group of fifth and sixth graders in Redmond, Wash., they began on the streets they play on in their own neighborhood — and took their idea all the way to City Hall.
RoboWarriors are competing in their second FLL season, organized through the non-profit FIRST Washington, in which they build LEGO-based robots to complete tasks on a thematic playing surface. Last season, the challenge was called “Into Orbit” and kids completed lunar-lander-type tasks, and even showed off their skills in a GeekWire Robotics Cup.
City Shaper is encouraging kids to help their cities, towns and places they call home “reach new heights” and get involved in city planning. They must identify a common problem they see around their neighborhood or city and propose a solution.
Team RoboWarriors is made up of Neil Rawal, Krish Jha, Dev Jha, Shloke Chowdhary, Anya Mahesh and Shrey Bahl. The team is coached by two parents, Manuj Bahl and Renuka Iyer. Bahl is a former Microsoft and RealNetworks engineer who helped start the app creation platform Apptivate.io, and recently took on a new engineering leadership role at OfferUp. Iyer is a market research director at Microsoft.
In the Woodbridge area of Redmond where the kids live, they’re often seen playing outside together, and according to Bahl, they’re consistently warned by parents to be aware of cars on the streets, especially around turns.
RoboWarriors decided to tackle this safety concern as part of their robotics challenge and started with the idea of using motion sensors to detect oncoming vehicles. Ideas were brainstormed, Ring smart doorbells were analyzed, prototypes were built, logistics were considered around placement and power.
The kids decided sensors would need to be installed closer to the road, facing away from sidewalks, so as not be triggered by pedestrians. Solar panels on top of the sensors were suggested as a power source. Members of the community were invited to a neighborhood town hall for a demo and discussion around the idea, and concerns were addressed regarding the noise emitted by sensors and what time of day they would be used.
“Programing is quickly becoming a basic literacy skill in the digital age and it is important for kids to help them understand the technology that surrounds us all,” Bahl said. “Not only does teaching students robotics teach them how to solve problems, but also helps them increase their maturity levels and prepare them for real-world situations. This year’s problem was a great way to teach them to turn their frustration into innovation.”
The RoboWarriors reached out to Redmond Mayor John Marchione and were invited to share their thoughts with Jon Spangler, construction division manager for the city. The kids went to City Hall on Wednesday and gave a presentation and demo of their proposal.
Bahl said city officials were impressed with the kids’ research and that they had an engaging discussion. Spangler called it an interesting idea for improving the safety of people in neighborhoods — a top concern for city officials. And according to Bahl, he told the kids he was glad they took the initiative to build out a prototype and share what they learned.
“Having children learn coding at a young age prepares them for the future,” Iyer said. “It is no secret that jobs in STEM are the fastest growing careers and by the time our kids graduate more than half the jobs will require STEM knowledge. This is our second year coaching these kids and it has been an amazing experience observing them grow their problem solving skills.”
Team RoboWarriors hits the road this weekend for a competition at Liberty High School in Renton, Wash.