Students learn how to save day at Lego competition in Modesto

naustin@modbee.comNovember 19, 2013 


    CHAMPIONS: Botcats, Dan Savage Middle School, Sylvan district

    DESIGN: Organized Chaos, Somerset Middle School, Sylvan district

    PROJECT: Cell-O-Bot, Folsom Cordova Unified districtwide team

    CORE VALUES: Green Machine, La Loma Junior High, Modesto City Schools


    JUDGES AWARD: Mindstorm Chasers, Modesto Academy of Music and Design, Salida

— Kids competing in a robotics challenge studied large-scale natural disasters. But the Lego-linked contest also taught kids how to help, how to plan and how to come back when it all falls apart on competition day.

“Nature’s Fury” was the challenge laid out for the First Lego League Robotics Qualifying Tournament held at Dan Savage Middle School in north Modesto on Saturday.

At the event, “They have to build a robot from nothing – design them, build them,” said Savage teams adviser Pam Mayne. “They have these great ideas and then it doesn’t work out. It’s really hard. It really stretches them.”

Teams of students ages 9-14 put in “hours and hours – more than a sports team,” Mayne said, studying their chosen disasters, planning a community project and learning how to make Lego robots obey commands.

Their hastily created plastic heroes had to save the day on cue on a table laid out with taped zones. Supplies had to be delivered. Pets had to be matched with people. People had to be taken to safe zones. Not every robot was up to the challenge, youngsters realized at the moment of truth.

It was a lot to manage, conceded table emcee John Mayne. “I enjoy watching them succeed at trying to make it work,” Mayne said between rounds.

One teammate left before the table challenge, said Savage Cats team member Dumivan Matthews, 13. “He cracked under pressure,” Dumivan said as he and the remaining Cats scrambled to find the laptop password and dive back into their preparations.

The Savage Cats chose earthquakes as their disaster topic, studying one of California’s signature risk factors and trying to educate their school about how to be safe, said Indiana Westcott, 11.

As their project, they ran a schoolwide contest, challenging classes to get students’ families to register their cell phones for the Reverse 911 service offered by the Stanislaus Office of Emergency Services. In an emergency, law enforcement can call them, said Westcott. But, team members said matter-of-factly, the number that signed up was “not much.”

The second Savage team, the Botcats, won the championship with their Tsunami Safety Plan, presented to the Sylvan Union School District Board last week. The plan is targeting the annual eighth grade field trip to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, an area hit by the 2011 Japan tsunami, Mayne said.

The La Loma Junior High School Green Machine, which won the Core Values portion of the contest, studied the Japanese disaster as well, said adviser Lee Ollar.

Standing in a semicircle getting last-minute coaching points, team members said they designed a hydroelectric seawall that would have saved Japan’s doomed nuclear plant. They came away with a lot of sympathy for Japan and others hit by massive quakes, the 12- and 13-year-olds said.

Other teams worked a little more off the cuff, but said after surviving the table round that they learned a lot.

“Accidentally, we did pretty good,” commented 12-year-old Jacob Williams of the Sacred Heart Mustangs, a Turlock team.

Teammate Christopher Gemperle, 14, admitted, “We were programming it wrong the whole time.” But the robot bumbled into the right spot anyway. “It was just luck,” he said.

The team did not end up winning, but they had fun learning about tornadoes and developing a Minecraft video to teach other kids about disaster preparedness.

Angel Reyes, 14, said it was all he expected when he signed up for the after-school extra. “My favorite subject is science. I loved Legos when I was a kid. I thought – perfect!” he said.

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at or (209) 578-2339. Follow her on Twitter @NanAustin.

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