Petersburg Middle School Robotics team made up of 7th and 8th graders competed in Juneau December 8, 2018. (Photo courtesy of Cyndy Fry)

Eight Petersburg Middle School students were in Juneau for a robotics competition last weekend. The local robotics club had been gearing up for the First Lego League Competition event since September. The theme this year was “space”. KFSK’s Angela Denning talked with team leaders before they left town.

It’s a competition that takes strategy. There are 15 possible tasks that the teams’ robots can complete for points. But they’re limited on time. They only have two and a half minute for all the tasks. So, it’s virtually impossible to get it all done.

“One of the missions that was probably more complex is we had to pick an astronaut up and put him in a specific location,” said 13-year-old Wyatt Litster. He’s one of Petersburg team’s three “Command Leaders” who has more experience in the club than other members.

“We had to make our robot go forward,” he said, “turn left, go forward and then turn right, and then have something that picked up the astronaut and then put it in a container and then go back to base.”

The students spent all fall building and programming their robot to do the mission tasks.

But the robots are only one of four parts of the competition. The students also have three presentations. One explains the choices they made on their robot. This year, they decided to go with a compact and sturdy design with extra areas for attachments.

Command Leaders for Petersburg Middle School Robotics Club hold posters they used in presentations at the First Lego League competition in Juneau Dec. 8, 2018. From L-R: Logan Hailey, Wyatt Litster, Malcolm Fry. (Photo by Angela Denning/KFSK)

Command leader, 13-year-old Logan Hailey, says they modified their design to use a marble as a swiveling back tire.

“We were going to use treads but instead we decided to use two front wheels and a marble in the back so it can turn easier instead of having to turn using one tread going forward and the other not going as fast,” Hailey said.

“How do you think that turned out in the end?” I asked him.

“It turned out a whole ton better than if we had used treads!” he said.

Another presentation at the competition is about coming up with an innovative solution. This year students had to find a space challenge and then present a way to solve it. Petersburg’s team started by listening to a former astronaut–Jeffrey A. Hoffman–while he addressed students in a video conference. Hoffman has been on five missions in space and is currently an MIT professor.

“He knew many of the missions that were up in space,” said 8th grader, and another commander leader, Macolm Fry. “We heard that food was one of the problems–fresh food.”

So, Petersburg’s team researched what they could do about it. They came up with a hydroponic growing system that uses gaskets to help contain water without gravity. They considered what types of plants they could grow quickly and decided on water crest, which can be eaten about a week after it’s started.

The third presentation at the competition is on the core values of the Lego League.

Petersburg Middle School Robotics Team made up of 7th and 8th graders competed in Juneau December 8, 2018. (Photo courtesy of Cyndy Fry)

“It’s like the thing that we want in a team and that we want in a team member sort of,” Litster said. “One of the core values was inclusion and you had to describe how that fit into our group.”

Hailey says another value they presented in the competition was on discovery.

“We discovered that if we split up into smaller groups and had sections of the missions that we could get more done than if we were one big group,” he said.

Petersburg’s robotics team wanted to best their score from last year when they finished 14th. But in the end the five missions didn’t go as flawlessly as they had hoped so they ended up placing 14th again.

The 6th graders have their own robotics team because they are too young to travel. Their virtual tournament was scheduled for this month but has been postponed to January 12 because of the earthquake in Anchorage.