Mentoring Matters:ARL's launch of first Junior LEGO® League Competition in Harford County changes students' lives

April 04, 2011

Story Highlights

  • More than 30 regional teams participated in the non-competitive competition.
  • The Junior First Lego League is the newest offering of the First Robotics Program, which started in 1989.
  • ARL will continue providing support for the program, and is looking to start First Lego League teams with fourth and fifth graders.

CHURCHVILLE, Md. - When Churchville Elementary School student Mackenzie Klepsig was just four years old, her parents noticed that something was wrong with the way her body regulated heat. So they took her to John Hopkins hospital for weeks of tests, including an echocardiogram; all tests eventually ruled out thyroid and rheumatology problems.

Her diagnosis was an anomalous right coronary artery, a condition where both coronary arteries originate from the left side of the heart instead of one from each side, said her father Ken, and can pinch closed when under stress or activity. That's why he and his wife jumped at the opportunity to sign Mackenzie up for the ARL-National Defense Education Program sponsored Junior FIRST® LEGO® League team, the first public school based program in Harford County, Md., hosted at her school.

"Because of the physical limitation we place on Mackenzie, we push her to develop her mind," he said. He along with four other volunteers including ARL's Dr. James Snyder, from the Weapons and Materials Research Directorate, and Dr. Matt Floros, from the Vehicle Technology Directorate, serve as coaches to four teams of about four students each in first through third grades.

The teams meet weekly in Churchville Elementary's cafeteria for about 90 minutes working on projects and inventions related to biomedical technology. Snyder said the teams were initially formed in October for only six weeks, but on February 26, some six months later, these teams competed in an area-wide Jr. FIRST® LEGO® League Expo at the University of Maryland Baltimore County Retriever Activities Center.

More than 30 regional teams participated in the non-competitive competition, Snyder said, emphasizing to parents and students that competition rules really served as guidance, and that each team would be awarded a trophy.

ARL-sponsored team LEGO® Machiners won the Body Builders award for the mechanical arm they developed using LEGOs. Team Brickmasters, coached by Snyder, won the Engineering Excellence award for their Alzheimer's Machine, and the LEGO® Masters, coached by Floros, won the Super Builders award for their flying hospital. Klepsig's team, LEGObots, won the Got Guts award for their lollipop invention.

The Junior FIRST® LEGO® League is the newest offering of the FIRST Robotics Program, which started in 1989 in New Hampshire to help young people discover and develop a passion for science, engineering, technology, and math. Modeled after FIRST® LEGO® League, which is geared toward students in grades 4 - 8, the Junior FIRST® LEGO® League was formed in 2004 to introduce the youngest, budding scientists to science and technology. The junior competition, like others in the First family of programs, features a real-world challenge to be solved by research, critical thinking and imagination. Guided by adult coaches, students work with LEGO® elements and moving parts to create solutions and present them for review.

The Lollipop Thermometer, created by Churchville LEGObots team members Mackenzie, seven-year-olds Jadon Russell, second grade and Lily Altshuler, first grade, relies on a re-useable thermometer as the "stick" in its lollipop design, and quick-dissolving medicine or candy as the sweet centerpiece. If a parent is not sure if the child is sick or not, the parent would simply take the child's temperature with a candy lollipop - without medicine - to get a reading of at least body heat.

Once the diagnosis is clear, parents and children can choose a variety of flavors to address different ailments. For example, if the child has a cough, he or she would use the red, or cherry-flavored lollipop. For congestion, use the blue lollipop that is berry flavored. In cases of multiple symptoms, commonly found with the flu, the multi-colored lollipop would be used.

"The Lollipop Thermometer works just like a regular thermometer. You place the lollipop in the child's mouth; it would not need to go under the tongue," Mackenzie explained during a recent dry-run of the presentation. "When the lollipop dissolves, sensors would pick up the temperature and it would read out on the lollipop stick.

"In our model, we are using the motorized movement of a chain to simulate the rise and fall of body temperature," said the seven-year-old. "In our model, the battery powered motor turns an axle that is connected to a gear. The chain is connected to the gear and is also connected to a free moving gear and axle at the other end. It works just like a bicycle chain."

Mackenzie's father Ken said during his daughter's latest round of tests at Johns Hopkins, she mentioned her team's LEGO® project to the doctors. "They seemed to think it was an excellent idea. Anything that makes it easier for doctor to administer medicines to pediatric patients is a welcome treat for doctors. We were told that some transplant patients take upwards of 15 -20 medicines and having them eat a lollipop would make taking medicine a more pleasant experience."

According to Snyder, ARL plans to continue supporting the competition for another year, and is looking to start FIRST® LEGO® League teams with fourth and fifth graders.

"We were very excited when the formation of a LEGO® Robotic program was announced at Churchville Elementary School," said Ken Klepsig. "We whole-heartedly support the program. We are also very thankful for ARL for their support as well. ARL's contributions were a great help to families that already have their finances stressed from other causes. The LEGO® program is now funded fully by the participant and ARL."


Last Update / Reviewed: April 4, 2011