DODEA elementary students bring LEGO robots to life

Mordecai Kenemore, a fifth-grade student at Kaiserslautern Elementary School, celebrates after his team's robot successfully completes a maneuver during a DODEA-Europe robotics competition for 10- to 14-year-old students in Kaiserslautern, Germany, on Monday, March 28, 2016.


By JENNIFER H. SVAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 28, 2016

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — Maybe even LEGO robots have minds of their own.

Fourth- and fifth-graders at Kaiserslautern Elementary School, who spent nearly 90 hours designing, building and programming robots from LEGO kits for a pilot program this school year, might think that.

On Monday, Kaiserslautern fielded three robots during the first district-level virtual robotics competition for elementary and middle school students in Department of Defense Education Activity-Europe.

All three teams won points in the competition, but their robots didn’t always cooperate when it came to completing tasks. Those included knocking over LEGO beams, dropping LEGO animals inside a circle, and pushing a button to release a brown “compost” LEGO brick.

The clock hadn’t expired, but fifth-grader Damian Harms, 11, had to call time on his team’s robot when its arm kept spinning, no matter what trouble-shooting he tried. And one wheel, he said, was moving too slowly.

“It’s always when there’s a big competition that the robot doesn’t work,” said classmate Dominik Erickson, 11, who experienced similar frustrations with his team’s robot.

Despite the setbacks, the kids seemed to be having fun.

“We get to use LEGOs in ways we never have before and we get to hang with our friends,” said Mordecai Kenemore, 11.

The competition drew 32 students from Kaiserslautern, Vogelweh and Bitburg elementary schools and Spangdahlem middle school. The schools were linked virtually, so everyone could watch each team’s robot maneuver the same course set up at each school. Judging was done on the spot.

Ramstein students and teams from Wiesbaden Middle School and Aukamm Elementary School competed separately last week. Scores are still being reviewed to see which teams will move on from the Kaiserslautern district to the regional level, organizers said.

Kaiserslautern Elementary School students began delving into robotics in September, after receiving LEGO robotics kits purchased with a DODEA grant, said gifted resource educator Elizabeth Quinn, who led the school’s first robotics program this year with fifth-grade teacher Sean Conrad.

Other schools could also apply for the grant, part of an effort to introduce more science, technology, engineering and math education and activities into the lower grades, Quinn said.

The funding made it possible for the schools to prepare to participate in the nationally sponsored first LEGO League Robotics competition, but that goal in Europe was scaled back to a regional DODEA robotics competition.

“It is such a massive undertaking,” Quinn said of the LEGO competition. “We were all brand new. (DODEA) just made it manageable, so we could focus” on robotics and getting a robot on the table.

The 16 robotics students at Kaiserslautern stayed after school and came in on Saturdays to get the robots ready for competition, devoting about 88 hours, said Dominik Erickson, who did the math.

Programming was the biggest challenge, Quinn said. “You get (the robot) to work one time, you get it to work three times and then the next 10 times it doesn’t work … you can’t figure out why.”

But such obstacles led to other lessons, such as perseverance.

“It was a skill they developed,” Quinn said. “They just kept sticking with it and working it.”


From right, Damian Harms, Matt Harms and Mordecai Kenemore, look at Damian's team's robot after a DODEA-Europe robotics competition for 10- to 14-year-old students in Kaiserslautern, Germany, on Monday, March 28, 2016. Mordecai and Damian are both fifth-graders at Kaiserslautern Elementary School. Matt Harms is Damian's father, and also volunteered to help the students learn the programming needed to operate the robots.