By TALIA WIENER
The Buzz Aldrin Middle School Robotics Club competes annually in the First LEGO League Competition, but this year, STEM coordinator and club coach Daniel Taylor was unsure of how the 10-member team of seventh and eighth graders would perform.
The team did not compete last year due to COVID-19, and the normally in-person competition this year is being held virtually for the first time. Plus, with only three returning team members, the majority of the Buzz Aldrin squad would be participating for the first time.
“There were a lot of things that we were unsure of,” Taylor said. “It was overwhelming.”
During the last couple weeks before the competition, the nerves began to take over, he said.
“They start to kind of bump heads and reckon with each other because they want to be more efficient and they want to get stuff done,” Taylor said. “Fear and anxiety really creep in, and the doubt follows. I had no idea what was really going to happen.”
But at the competition’s Nov. 20 regional round, the Buzz Aldrin students overcame the odds — the team won an award for one of the two best projects in the field of 24 teams and qualified for the state tournament in December.
“I was really impressed that they handled it so well, because there were so many new faces,” Taylor said. “This was probably, as far as a new team goes, the most impressive one I’ve worked with.”
Taylor also runs Buzz Aldrin’s year-round Engineering, Technology and Computing Club. Each fall, a group of ETC Club students is selected to be part of the Robotics Club and to compete in the First LEGO League Competition. Students are chosen based on conduct, dedication to the team and ability to pick up skills quickly, Taylor said.
This year, he only found out the club would be permitted to meet in-person in late September, so he quickly went about building the team. They began to meet three days each week for about two hours, increasing the meeting length and frequency as the competition grew closer.
The First LEGO League Competition is focused on creating a hands-on experience for students with coding and problem-solving exercises. The competition is scored on three components — a research project, the design and programming of a LEGO robot, and core values presented by the team.
This year’s research topic, “Cargo Connect,” asked students to reimagine the global transportation system to create sustainable solutions to the world’s transportation challenges. The solutions did not have to be immediately implementable, but had to be within the realm of possibility, Taylor said.
The Buzz Aldrin team’s project was “Power Towers” — a series of towers installed along shipping channels, generating and storing electricity from wind and water turbines, that would serve as docking and recharging stations for electric freight ships. This would cut down on the use of fossil fuels and costs for the ships, the team argued in its presentation.
The students presented “Power Towers” to the competition judges, volunteers who work in STEM, taking turns discussing the idea. Each tower, costing $14.5 million to build, would produce over 12 million kilowatts every year, according to the team’s presentation. While electric ships do not currently exist, companies are prototyping models of them, the students said in their presentation.
The students presented via video to the judges, which created a different competition environment than in past years, when students were surrounded by other students, parents and the judges, Taylor said.
“The hardest part of today’s competition was presenting, because I choked in the middle, which I had never done in practice,” eighth grader Gabby Mehta said. “However, I recovered well and chalked it all up to nerves.”
Eighth grader Danica Stout said she learned “‘Fake it ’til you make it’ is actually really helpful.”
“If you pretend to be completely confident, the judges won’t know any better,” she said.
or some team members, the remote structure helped to make them feel comfortable.
“As far as the Zoom calls and recording, it is easy and a little anticlimactic,” eighth grader Anisa Adhami said. “There is definitely a point where the nerves are going, but you are not surrounded with the same busy environment as going in person.”
The competition “felt better being in a familiar place,” eighth grader Sabrina Juergensen said.
The second component of the competition — design and programming — had students build and code a LEGO robot to move around a board for 2½ minutes, completing a series of missions and maneuvering around obstacles. Each team had three chances to send the robot on its mission and could tweak the code between runs. The students then submitted videos of the robot’s three trials to the judges for consideration and scoring.
Watching the robot complete its runs was Gabby Mehta’s favorite part of the competition.
“It was satisfying to see the robot do its missions, and even more so when you knew how much work went into it,” she said.
Seeing the robot do so well was also seventh grader Charlotte Wurmser’s favorite part of the day.
“It taught me a lot about code, build and research,” she said. “It was a super-fun experiment.”
The video structure also meant the team didn’t have to worry about transporting its coded robot or traveling anywhere, seventh grader Maxwell Bellack said.
Despite the stress of the competition — tricky coding challenges, remote presentations, etc. — Taylor said the students came together to work hard and adapt to whatever the competition threw their way. The students shared ideas and collaborated in the research and coding processes, and each contributed to the team, he said.
“I think the collaboration was important,” eighth grader Wyatt Foster said. “There are a lot of perfectionists on the team, all with different ideas about what to do and how to do it.”
Working together not only helped with the team’s projects, but with nerves too, eighth grader Eleanor Rothman said.
“I enjoyed going through the competition as a team,” she said. “We were able to rely on each other to calm us down when we got nervous.”
The final component of the competition was a test of the team’s core values. Judges asked team members questions including how their team is unique, how they divided up responsibility, what problems they encountered and how they overcame those problems.
The team will compete in the remote state tournament Dec. 11 and 12, presenting “Power Towers” and sending the robot through a series of missions.
Once the competition is over, the Robotics Club will be dissolved until next fall. ETC Club will still meet, but students said they will miss the robotics team.
“It made me feel a part of something and feel important,” seventh grader Collin Brooks said.
Team members said they want to continue being a part of the club next year, citing friendships, new skills learned and competition snacks.
Eighth graders on the team said they hope to join the robotics club at Montclair High School.
“I really enjoyed my time on the robotics team (this year and two years ago) and am sad that it is going to end,” Aseem Rai said. “It’s kind of a bittersweet feeling.”
A team from Renaissance at Rand Middle School — the Technological Organization of Renaissance Nerds — also competed in the Nov. 20 competition. The team’s research project focused on enhancing the bicycle courier business with improved technology, safety and efficiency features, according to science teacher and club coach Todd Smith.
“While the results did not earn a trophy this year, the team worked hard, learned a lot and had a lot of fun,” Smith said.
The Glenfield Robotics Club also took part in the competition, but it did not qualify for the state tournament, Glenfield science teacher and club leader Emma Tami said.
“For the presentation, the students decided to focus on the use of drones for local deliveries and wanted to create opportunities in school for students to learn more about drones and how to safely use them,” Tami said.