Trophies line Tim Brown's Woodland Middle School classroom, where students take an elective class in LEGO Robotics.
The hardware — including a second place in state in 2008 — only serves to rev up Woodland's current Lego League team, which competed Saturday in the preliminary round of the Oregon Robotics Tournament in Vancouver. Woodland is partly in Clark County, and Clark County schools compete with Oregon, Brown said.
"We took second place out of 18 teams," said Brown, the team's adviser and computer teacher. "We had the highest scores we have ever gotten and we qualified to go to state in January."
Saturday's contest culled the top three teams that go on to state, where 120 teams will tilt for a crack at nationals ... and then the world.
If it were not for Brown teaching the robotics elective during his prep period, Woodland wouldn't have a team.
"All these guys took the beginning class," the teacher said, "and most of them took the advanced class."
The team spent a semester on programming and problem-solving skills, but not just to make their robot capture plastic targets and contest trophies.
They also researched a bioengineering project, went to Oregon Health Sciences University to watch a robot do a tracheotomy and wrote, memorized and delivered a wizardly summary of their project for judges.
At the heart of LEGO's Mindstorms Education program is the robot.
Working on identical "game boards" and with the same Lego components, teams build a robot designed to accomplish a set of missions, or tasks, on a big board. A task might be to pick up a Lego man, or to go up a ramp.
More than 1,000 teams around the country will share the same missions and work on identical boards. But each team designs and programs its robot in totally different ways.
The Woodland team started by creating Lego components specialized for each task.
"I helped to build the robot," said Carlos Roldan, 13. "It's fun to find solutions to all those missions. They're like little puzzles that you have to solve.
"If we need help, we go to Mr. Brown. But usually we figure stuff out ourselves, as a team."
After the kids have built robot parts, all of those parts have to be brought together in one robot with an NXT log, the brain of the computer.
That job fell to Virn Warndahl and Addy Dinehart, who emerged as experts. They tinkered and tinkered. League rules allow certain creative shortcuts, said Tim Nahling. "You can combine your missions. It's kind of a speed thing."
When they got stuck, Addy said, they could take their questions to the Lego people and get help.
Aaron Kitchen, at 12 the youngest team member, designed the software program that would contain all the movements the robot needed to complete its missions. "Aaron is way, way, way advanced," Brown said.
The team communicated with the robot through a wireless Bluetooth.
It's pretty tricky stuff, especially at the competition, where the robot has to finish the missions in 2 1/2 minutes. Flat.
Virn and Addy practiced and practiced, timing themselves and stopping to readjust a Lego piece or a programming glitch.
They get three chances to put the robot through its paces; judges take the highest score.
Now for the medicine
The second score is based on a research presentation. The First LEGO League creates different challenges every year, including a theme for research.
"We needed an idea for robotics in the medical field," Virn said.
Team members Jake Rosenbalm, Matt Young, Becca Hennings and Jamie Kitchen really took to the research, said Jamie.
Scouting the Internet and the library, the Woodland kids chose TORS, the Trans Oral Robotics System, which uses robotics to replace a trachea, the windpipe or tube in our throats that we breathe through.
They read up on the anatomy of the trachea and on the new tracheotomy surgery. And they got a real boost when Brown discovered that they could watch how TORS works at OHSU in November.
Dressed in scrubs, the Woodland students joined surgeons there who "let us operate it," said Jamie Kitchen, 13. "We picked up dimes and little rubber bands" by manipulating the robotic surgical tool.
"We got to keep our scrubs," Jamie said, and some of the team wore them for their tournament presentation.
In a 5-minute performance summarizing what they learned, the Woodland team took different roles and smoothly delivered heavy-duty scientific information.
Calling each other "Dr. Rosenbalm," "Dr. Hennings" and so forth, the kids stood in front of a series of trifolds and described the human trachea, prosthetic devices currently used to replace diseased tracheas, the new TORS system, "stereolithography" (a 3-D printing process), stem cell replacement that grows a new trachea, and recovery rates with the new surgery.
For example, Virn said to Aaron, "Dr. Kitchen, tell us about the process by which this prosthetic trachea was grown."
Here are a few words from Aaron's answer: "pseudostratified cilliated columnar epithelial cells ..."
And here's how Jamie compared typical surgery to robotics: "When you do a traditional tracheotomy you have to break the patient's jaw and make an incision from the ear down to the patient's neck," she explained. "This takes many weeks of recovery time, and some patients have to have a permanent feeding tube. The TORS system enters from within the throat and nose. And the improvements made by the Legos for the Cure team will allow us to do trachea surgeries that are far less invasive."
‘All our work is team work'
The third score at the competition was based only on process: how the kids worked.
"They give you a task to accomplish," Jamie explained. "You might have to build something out of pennies. And they don't judge us on whether or not we accomplish it.
"They just judge our team work. They also ask us questions about how we work as a team."
The Woodland team spent hours on the TORS project. Twice a week they met after school with Brown and his wife, Shar Brown, who teaches at the elementary level but volunteers time with the LEGO team.
When asked how robotics has changed them, the kids trip over their words.
"I've used lots of math with the programming," said Virn.
"It's like engineering," said Carlos. "I probably will keep on building things. At home, I build stuff out of wood," including a pump house for the family pool and ramps for his skate board.
"I want to be an engineer," he said.
"With this team, I like doing research and stuff," said Jamie. "It's so much fun! I might become a foreign correspondent."
After the competition Saturday, Brown said the students were excited. Although the robot did not function as well as it should have had, they tied for first in the robotics and did well answering questions after their presentation.
"The did exceptionally well," Brown said.