Building a future in robotics
The basement’s tables are covered in foam mats and spare robot parts.
There are rubber totes filled with grey plastic building blocks, walls covered with posters of robots, and jagged yellow trophies built with Lego.
Gathered around a long table are seven youths, current and past members of the North Shore’s Buildbots Robotics Team.
With wide eyes and smiles, the kids take their Lego Mindstorms robot — which they’ve nicknamed “Cube” — through an elaborate obstacle course of 18 “missions.”
The team, including Andrew Zheng, 10, Daniel Alfonso-Vargas, 10, Joshua White, 12, Mark Robertson, 11, and Stefan Kovalski, 11, is preparing to represent B.C. at the FIRST Lego League Open Tournament at California’s Legoland this weekend.
Over a three-month period in 2010 the North Shore youths built and programmed the robot to complete the challenges in competitions. They went on to win first place in a regional tournament and second place at the provincials.
Team coach Johana Vargas says the program, which she founded with her husband in 2001, teaches kids more than computer programming and robotics.
“It’s really about life skills. It teaches them to work and negotiate as part of a team. They need to listen and make sure their ideas are heard,” she says.
“When they do it in competition, they look like a pit crew,” adds coach Carlos Alfonso. “It’s pretty incredible to watch.”
In addition, the tournament format gives students who excel at maths and sciences a creative and competitive outlet.
“I started because I always had a passion for building things, and I really like math,” explains 12-year-old Joshua White. “I got hooked on the programming side of things as well.”
Mark Robertson, 11, also discovered a hidden love. “I really liked Lego and building things, so I thought I should I should join. Once I realized it was about robotics, I found a passion for robotics. I didn’t care so much for Lego anymore.”
For the past few months former team members Nicolas Alfonso and Peter Deltchev have been working with the group of five youth to help prepare them for the upcoming tourney.
Vargas says both Nicolas and Peter are hoping to progress to the next level of competition in November, but financial barriers could prevent them from competing.
Many of the American teams, she said, have corporate sponsors such as IBM, Microsoft and NASA. Canadian teams, meanwhile, are often left to fend for themselves.
“We want to get the corporate world involved. These kids will be in the workforce in another 10 or 20 years... it’s important we support them now.”