By Jenna Brady, ARL Public AffairsFebruary 5, 2018
ADELPHI, Md. -- A group of future researchers recently had the opportunity to work with a U.S. Army Research Laboratory engineer for a state robotics competition.
Morris Berman, team leader of the ARL Advanced Power Packaging and Tactical Energy Networks Team in the Power Conditioning Branch, coached the team for the FIRST LEGO League Maryland state qualifier tournament held at the Universities at Shady Grove in Rockville, Maryland on Jan. 6.
This event was the culmination of more than 50 hours of effort initiated in September 2017 for the team, named FLLow, which included seven girls and three boys ranging from fifth through eighth grade.
According to its website, FIRST LEGO League teams research a real-world problem such as food safety, recycling, energy, etc. and are challenged to develop a solution.
They also must design, build and program a robot using LEGO MINDSTORMS technology, then compete on a table-top playing field.
For this competition, the team designed, built and programed an autonomous LEGO robot from scratch to execute a defined series of tasks on a 4'x8' playing field.
The team was required to develop a strategy for how they would earn the maximum number of points by manipulating and actuating the various items for each mission on the table.
In addition, the team developed an innovative solution to provide water desalination at the single residence scale in rural Kuwait.
A hallmark of the program is that the adult coaches involved may only offer guidance, and cannot execute any of the team's efforts.
FLLow received sponsorship from ARL and Department of Defense Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, known as STEM.
Berman initially became interested in the league when he heard about its efforts in 2005 at a science fair.
Several years later, when a co-worker was looking for volunteers to help at the FLL state tournament, Berman decided to step in.
"While at that state tournament, my co-worker suggested that I contact an ARL outreach coordinator to see what support might be available if I were to coach an FLL team," Berman said. "Thus, in 2011, I found myself with a new LEGO MINDSTORMS kit, a grant from the National Defense Education Program, now DoD STEM, and a rookie FLL team of about seven fifth-grade students. I began coaching an FLL Jr. team a few months later."
For Berman, coaching this team was a rewarding experience that not only gave him an opportunity to mentor the students but allowed the students to impact him throughout tournament preparations.
"The kids are always teaching me something new, whether it's something about the project or a novel way to complete a robotic task," Berman said. "One of the core values of FIRST is that the work should be 100% from the team rather than the adults. As a result, I answer a lot of questions with questions to make the kids think about the problem differently. I am often rewarded with an entirely new perspective on the problem that I had not even considered."
Based on his experience, Berman suggests that other researchers look into coaching students for similar competitions.
"Working with these teams is extremely rewarding and keeps me energized about science," Berman said. "It's a good way to start recruiting the next generation of engineers and scientists. Additionally, I am often not specifically knowledgeable about the broad topic area so it is an opportunity to expand my horizons as a researcher as well as understand a set of problems that are applicable to society as a whole."
Berman stated that there are also several benefits that he hopes the students get out of participating in the league.
"Primarily, I hope the exposure to research and engineering will give kids a basis to decide if it is something they might want to pursue as a career or not," Berman said. "For those that do, FLL's structure encourages them to develop skills not only in engineering design and programming, but also in academic research, presentation and teamwork. When researching, students must interact with subject matter experts. They must also present their research to a group that can benefit from it."
In addition, Berman noted that the robotics aspect exposes kids to the intersection of the physical and cyber worlds, which is something new for most of them, even those with prior programming experience.
"That intersection requires them to learn how to analyze, organize and problem solve," Berman continued, "all of these skills will surely serve kids well if they choose a career in the sciences, but things like teamwork, communication and problem solving are really applicable to any career."
The U.S. Army Research Laboratory is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, which has the mission to provide innovative research, development and engineering to produce capabilities that provide decisive overmatch to the Army against the complexities of the current and future operating environments in support of the joint warfighter and the nation. RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command.