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Southridge Elementary students Leo Duan and Omar Iqbal do a couple of test runs with their robot during a gathering of the school's First LEGO League Robotics Club.

Southridge club building for LEGO championships

Students in the Southridge Elementary School First LEGO League Robotics Club are building so much more than castles and cars.

Some of these sixth- and seventh-graders are constructing robots – functioning, autonomous robots, complete with coding that accepts instructions to make them move in specific directions and carry out desired tasks. Other students in the club are piecing together research projects and getting them ready for presentation. The event they’ve all got highlighted on their calendars is the First LEGO League Western Canadian Championships, Feb. 16 in Victoria.
 

As 18 Southridge kids prepare for the big day, they’re also assembling some valuable life skills – things like teamwork, communication and problem solving.

“We need to build a robot that can complete challenges, and there’s also a huge research component,” said Southridge teacher Dominic O’Driscoll, who, along with fellow teacher Tim Clough, oversees the club. “They are given a theme every year and students need to investigate some sort of real-life engineering problem (and develop ideas) on how to solve it.”

The theme for the Western championships is “City Shaper.”

For the robotics part of the competition, the First LEGO League provides all participating teams with the materials and challenges well in advance. In preparation, students build and program their robots using LEGO Mindstorms components, operate those robots on standardized tables/challenge mats, and work toward solving the problems they have been given. On the day of the competition, teams go against each other – and the clock – and accumulate points based on their levels of success.

Southridge is entering two teams in robotics.

“This is really fun,” said Grade 7 student Mason Meise. “I’ve learned how to code and build different things. I would say that our team is doing pretty good because we have to build our robots and code them together.

“I would say (the challenges) are pretty difficult.”

In one challenge, a building is elevated on beams and students must manipulate their robot in and around the structure.

“You have to drive in and you have to push certain beams without (the building) falling down,” Meise said. “And you have to balance it on three beams left behind. And you have to code (the robot) so it can drive straight in and straight out.”

There will also be an on-the-spot problem-solving challenge that will require teamwork and the ability to think and act under pressure.
 

Twelve of the Southridge students are in the robotics competition and the rest will earn points for the school on the research side of the championships. Under the “City Shaper” theme, one Southridge research group is looking at environmental sustainability in commercial construction projects and another is tackling the issue of homelessness and drug addiction in downtown Prince George. Grade 6 student Shayne Petch is part of the group working on sustainability and has found the experience eye-opening.

“Our city, we have two sustainable buildings but it’s overall not super sustainable,” she said. “We’re trying to design a super sustainable building, just a blueprint, and then any company or business can take it and they can modify it to however fits their needs. They would modify it to be their own but it will still be a sustainable building. We’re trying to think of ways to make it sustainable that fits our climate, being that it’s often very cold in the winter.”

The group trying to combat homelessness and drug addiction is working on the placement of an information kiosk downtown. The kiosk would help direct people to the different social services available. The reasoning behind the idea is that a certain percentage of the homeless in downtown Prince George are new to the city after being displaced during the regional wildfires of 2017 and 2018. Also, through consultation with Daniel Gallant – a Prince George lawyer and social worker who was homeless from the age of 12, all the way into his late 20s – students are examining how they can use technology to reach the homeless because many, Gallant told them, have cell phones.

O’Driscoll and Clough have been impressed by the dedication the students have shown. Regular class time happens each Wednesday but students decided right away that meeting once a week wouldn’t be sufficient. In response, many have been arriving at Clough’s modular building every morning so they can work on their projects before the start of the regular school day.
 

“We told them they could come at 7:45 – we get here at 7:30 and there’s already kids at the door, waiting outside for us,” O’Driscoll said. “They’ve been hugely interested in putting in extra time. We said three days a week would be a good goal for them to set but we’ve got kids that are five days a week every single week, and trying to get in on the weekends. They’re super engaged.”

So engaged, in fact, they’ve also been coming in on holidays and non-instructional days.

Students have been fundraising for the trip and have gotten an abundance of support from the business community. Sponsors include Tailgate Sports Apparel, Canfor, Chemtrade Logistics, Lally Electric, Pioneer Parts, Klassic Autobody and B&F Auto. Other businesses have donated funds and the Southridge Parent Advisory Council has also been a key contributor.

Along with Meise and Petch, students who will attend the First LEGO League Western Canadian Championships are Parker Guise, Brendyn Norbeck, Raunak Ghuman, Easton Mould, Wajih Mansour, Jetta Mousseau, Evelynn Pennington, Lucas Craig, Brendan Hofferd, Leo Duan, Omar Iqbal, Sophia Bhang, Chinazam Achunike, Bronwyn Pommer and Nick (last name withheld by request).

Teacher Dominic O'Driscoll consults with students Leo Duan, centre, and Omar Iqbal at their First LEGO League robotics table.

Robots are constructed with LEGO Mindstorms components.

Parker Guise, left, and Brendyn Norbeck work with their robot.

Raunak Ghuman assembles some LEGO pieces.

Easton Mould, left, and Mason Meise study programming on a LEGO League Robotics Club laptop.  

Teachers Tim Clough, back left, and Dominic O'Driscoll, back right, will have their students in Victoria on Feb. 16 for the First LEGO League Western Canadian Championships.