Students Solve Sanitation Issues Using Robots and Legos

Students Solve Sanitation Issues Using Robots and Legos

The next best thing to help end trash problems around the world could be just a few Lego blocks away from fruition.

First Lego League (FLL) competitors across the globe this year are using science and technology skills to tackle serious waste issues in their own backyard. The competition provides age-appropriate challenges to develop those skills in a fun and engaging way and they get to build a robot for more than just taking out the trash.

Founded by inventor Dean Kamen in 1989, FLL works to inspire students to become science and technology leaders. The original competition included high school students only, but now includes four programs for kids ages 9-16, who are tasked with coming up with inventive solutions to real-world science problems. And this year, they’re talking trash.

 “FLL started with a vision that we still adhere to today,” says Kim Wierman, director of FLL and Jr. FLL. “It’s really to transform culture to where science and technology leaders are celebrated. The same way that kids dream of becoming a basketball pro or an entertainment star, we use our programs, and hopefully we are creating kids who are dreaming of becoming the next Steve Jobs or inventing the next life-saving device.”

FLL follows a sports model but uses Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) topics, because kids like the competition component of the sporting culture, says Wierman.

In this year’s project portion of the competition, teams are looking for innovative ways to solve a trash problem they’ve identified. Next, in the robot game portion, teams program their robot to perform trash-related missions, which could include collecting materials that someone else doesn’t need, but you do, or loading salvage materials into a sorting bin. Models are, of course, made of Lego and they move on a playing field table.

But these kids aren’t playing around.

Often, says Wierman, judges who actually work in or around the industry the challenge is addressing, take back ideas from the competition and put them to real-world use.

“By engaging kids in science and technology at a young age, FLL is able to help kids understand the importance of creative problem solving, and that’s very much a mission and skill set that LEGO is trying to develop,” she says.

Each year FLL choses a theme that is something the kids can relate to and something that they see in the news and that real scientists and engineers are working on, says Wierman.

“This year, with TRASH TREK, teams are tasked to choose a piece of trash and identify a problem with the way it is currently handled. That could be related to how it’s made, how things are packaged, how things are stored or transported or recycled. Really, anything that when you have something that is no longer useful to you, what do you do with it?”

Christine Beling, U.S. EPA project engineer with the Assistance and Pollution Prevention Unit was among the professionals who worked to design this year’s Trash Trek theme. Putting the focus on trash and sustainability helped promote the idea that each of us has control over the amount of trash we generate, she says, through the choices we make, what we buy and whether we choose to recycle or litter.

Beling spent two days working having fun and playing with Legos on the conference tables, while collaborating on ideas for the challenge and the robot game.

“The theme I was most passionate about,” Beling says, “was influencing the challenge to inspire ‘making less trash’ or going up the (waste) stream to think about the first ‘R’ – reduce.”

The concept is encouraging kids to shift their thinking about what traditionally is called “trash,” she says. Next, it’s evaluating whether to make the trash in the first place or to make responsible choices after using the product to recover resources.

“Professionals in the field of solid waste management are shifting to a sustainable materials management approach,” says Beling, “and this challenge is an opportunity to promote that thinking with the youth who participate in FLL. Sharing what things are made of, what can be reused and recycled and simply paying a bit more attention brings a spotlight to these issues in our own homes and lives.”

Past challenges have included topics such as nanotechnology, climate, and transportation.

This year, teams compete in FLL regional competitions and those that advance will compete at the FIRST Championship in St. Louis, which is the annual global competition with 30,000 students participating.  

"About 15 SWANA members in the U.S. and Canada are actively supporting FLL, and we expect this participation to increase in the coming months. SWANA members are giving tours of solid waste facilities, acting as a technical resource, and sponsoring local tournaments," says David Biderman, executive director and CEO of SWANA.

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