Lake Norman & Mooresville

Students look to the future in competition

One day, hearing aids might automatically recharge using someone's own body heat, and they might take the form of an earring to be less conspicuous.

It's the kind of forward thinking you'd expect on a college campus or research institute. But in this case, it's a group of fifth-graders at Cornelius Elementary who is dreaming up the future.

The school recently became the first elementary in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to advance to the state level of the FIRST Lego League tournament, a competition designed to get children ages 9 to 14 excited about science, math and technology.

"We're excited about making history with the STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) Initiative," said Principal James Garvin. "It's allowed us to capitalize on critical thinking and problem solving, and both of those things are key components in 21st century learning."

Last spring, Talent Development teacher Diane Price selected students for the program based on academic scores, classroom performance, leadership and citizenship within the school. Students were divided in two groups: an all-female group named the Robo Rockstars and an all-male group called the Cyber Jax. The two teams prepared for the state qualifying competition before, during and after school, as well as at a summer camp.

"It's been a fun but hard journey," said fifth-grader Maggie Wagner. "We just have to keep working together and show people why we were meant to go to the state competition."

Cyberkids Robotics, a nonprofit education company based in Lenoir, helped train the students on the robot programming language, and local businesses like Presbyterian Hospital Huntersville and Ingersoll Rand Company sponsored the boy's team and girl's team, respectively.

Cornelius Elementary's teams competed Dec. 4 against 39 other groups at Charlotte Latin School. Teams first programmed and built a robot using Legos before the competition. Then teams used their robot to complete as many missions as possible on an 8-by-4-foot vinyl mat with various obstacles and point opportunities. Missions mostly consisted of picking up items and taking them back to the mat's base and delivering items to other locations on the mat.

Similar in style to Odyssey of the Mind, which also stresses the importance of science, math and problem solving, Price said the FIRST Lego League tournament puts more of an emphasis on technology.

The students also had to solve a hypothetical biomedical problem they gave themselves for the competition. For the girls' team, they wanted to make a hearing aid that sounded clearer and automatically charged.

Their research project was especially important for the girls' team: fellow teammate Kirstyn Tober has been hearing impaired since she was 1 year old.

The Cyber Jax team studied ways to make artificial blood cells to aid in human healing. Their project concluded that doctors should keep placenta and umbilical cords instead of discarding them in order to further stem cell research. They also found that protein from alligators blood can be used to make synthetic blood.

For months, students researched their topics online and interviewed doctors and professionals in the field. They also made adjustments to their robots to get them ready for the competition.

"The students are having a lot of fun and they're learning in the process," said Price. "They're not just regurgitating what they're being taught. They're taking skills and applying them to a real world problem."

On Dec. 4, 41 teams competed in the state qualifying competition. The teams were judged for four categories: teamwork, the robot mission, project presentation for the biomedical research component and technical design of the robot. Only top contenders in those categories - 18 teams - were chosen to advance to the state competition Jan. 29 at NC A&T University. Cornelius Elementary's teams were two of those teams chosen.

The Cyber Jax won first place for teamwork and the Robo Rock Stars won first place for project presentation.

Price said she's extremely proud of her students for advancing to the state level in the first year the school has had the program.

"This is 21st-century learning at work," she said. "They're solving a problem by collaborating on ideas and solutions and that's what they're going to have to do in the real world."