The little robot whirs across the canvas-covered board with surprising speed, pushing an object into place as it follows a computer program telling it exactly what to do.
And that’s when Gears in Motion robotics club coach Susan Douglas is running it. In the more experienced hands of her son Brit Douglas and Devin Russell, the robot zips even more deftly to complete several tasks around the board, including simulating a person using a cardio machine, knocking down bowling pins and aligning colorful plastic “quilt” squares.
Their skill — and the seven Ballston Spa-area teammates whose work beforehand also made the robot run well — earned the team a spot at the FIRST Lego League World Festival in April in St. Louis. They’re one of five teams from New York state that will get that chance.
The contest is a partnership between the United States Foundation for Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) and The Lego Group, which produces Mindstorm robots.
It’s a fun activity that teaches the middle-school students about computer programming, engineering and physics for the robot portion of the competition, as well as solving a real-world problem with technology or science as a separate project that doesn’t involve the robots.
This year’s real-world theme is “senior solutions,” and the Gears in Motion team has developed a website, NYSeniorSolutions.com, to match seniors in need of rides or light yard work with volunteers willing to help out. Students are recruiting people to take part on both sides but are mostly drawing from people they know, since they can vouch for them.
They have presented the idea to the Ballston Area Seniors group and plan to visit churches also, said Douglas, who coaches the team with Lisa Russell.
“The project is to make the kids realize that they can make a difference, that it’s a real-world situation.”
Team members competed in the robot contest and presented their senior website to judges in a qualifying tournament in Rome in November and then advanced to the championship tournament on Dec. 1 at SUNY IT in Utica, where they placed first. At the world competition, they’ll compete against 85 other teams from 62 countries, Douglas said.
The students, most of whom are in seventh grade now, have come a long way since forming a team in fourth grade and learning how to use the robots, Douglas said.
“They remember the first year, [saying] ‘We just want it to get out of base and do something,’ ” she said.
The stakes are, of course, higher at the world championships. “Many teams will get totally perfect points,” she said, adding that “We’re not at that level.”
The winner will be the team that does the job perfectly in the shortest amount of time. Teams are given 2 minutes and 30 seconds for the robot to complete the tasks.
Team members are Brandon Russell, Devin Russell, Sydney Christiansen, Dylan Jacobs, Dylan Shuhart, Ethan Miter, Brennan Fletcher, Shane Roy and Brit Douglas.
Other local school districts in the area also have FIRST Lego League teams that compete on the regional level. Most teams meet with local engineers to learn about programming robots and solving problems before they build their robots.
Gears in Motion once was affiliated with the Ballston Spa Central School District, where all the team members attend. But it became an independent, community-based group in September, giving the group more time to meet outside of the typical after-school times. Ballston Spa Middle School still has three FIRST Lego League teams, and the district’s elementary schools also have teams.
Inventor Dean Kamen and Lego Group owner and deputy chairman Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen founded FIRST Lego League in 1998. Kamen is best known for inventing the Segway scooter.
Across the U.S., teams of students ages 9 to 14 can sign up, and in addition to the technical skills, the competition teaches them sportsmanship by pushing them to support other teams even as they compete with each other.
Gears in Motion members were recognized for doing that.
In addition to winning the Champions Award in Utica, the team also got an award for “gracious professionalism.”
“They’re encouraging the teams to talk to each other,” Douglas said.