February 4, 2014

Event Lets Kids Tackle Disasters

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On Jan. 25 the atrium of Duffield Hall was packed with a group of young engineers who were seeking to help mankind overcome the threat of natural disasters.

These engineers, a small sample of over 22,000 participants across 12 countries, had been tasked with investigating phenomena such as earthquakes, storms, tsunamis and volcanic activity, according to Daniel Woodie, the event organizer and a Cornell staff member.

After conducting some preliminary research, the student engineers worked in teams to design prototype systems that might be used to combat natural disasters in reality.

One team designed a shelter that would keep both humans and pets safe during a hurricane. Another designed a mechanism that would help predict when an active volcano was about to erupt.

All of these innovations were then brought to Cornell to be presented for a large-scale expo that would allow others to evaluate the engineers’ work. This expo was the 8th annual Junior FIRST LEGO League, and not one of the engineers was over the age of nine.

The original FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) LEGO League was founded in 1998 by Segway inventor Dean Kamen and former president and CEO of LEGO Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen. Their goal was to create a robotics program that would foster interest in science and technology amongst children aged nine to sixteen.

Participants in the LEGO League used special LEGO kits complete with hardware and software to design custom robots that would respond to certain physical challenges, according to Woodie.

Most of these robots competed for points in national competitions that rewarded such things as innovation, team spirit, and adaptability.

The League’s success ultimately led to the development of a junior program in 2004, according to Woodie. While not competition-based, the Junior FIRST LEGO League encourages groups of children aged six to nine to respond to design challenges in a similar way.

The 8th annual Junior FIRST LEGO League offered participants a chance to respond to a major real-world problem with research, critical thinking and imagination. Faced with the theme of “Disaster Blaster,” the children at the event worked closely with their adult group leaders and each other to produce LEGO models that illustrated various natural disasters as well as the proposed responses to them.

These models all contained at least one moving element powered by a small motor, a competition requirement which highlighted the designers’ knowledge of simple machines. After the models were completed, they were presented alongside detailed poster boards that outlined the research behind each team’s decisions. The Expo gave the children a chance to explore each other’s work and analyze differences in the other teams’ approaches.

“They invent something, they represent it in LEGOs, and then they come to our event here to show it off and to have a lot of fun celebrating how inventing can be really awesome,” Woodie said.

The parents of the young engineers agreed.

“My son is in a LEGO group. I think this event is pretty awesome … it gives kids a chance to work together to work as a team and it’s a really good experience for them,” Rick Spearman said.

“It’s a great event for kids to learn about science, technology and math at a young age and just get them interested in and engaged in the sciences,” adult team leader Erik Eshelman said.

For their part, the children enjoyed the opportunity to share the projects they’d spent several weeks putting together, according to Woodie.

When not examining each other’s work, the young engineers designed custom paper rockets to launch into the air using a length of tube and a soda bottle.