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Building a better robot

Image: Students Emmanuel Njoku and Matt Thompson test out their LEGO robot on a game board. (All photos: Susan Flanigan)

Students Emmanuel Njoku and Matt Thompson test out their LEGO robot on a game board. (All photos: Susan Flanigan)

Image: Student Cahlah Chapman likes the technical challenges of building a robot.

Student Cahlah Chapman likes the technical challenges of building a robot.

Image: Teacher Mark Tao and students Daimere Phillips and Margaret Hangstorfer discuss how to solve a technical problem with their robot.

Teacher Mark Tao and students Daimere Phillips and Margaret Hangstorfer discuss how to solve a technical problem with their robot.

When he was growing up, Matt Thompson powered his LEGO® creations through his imagination. Now as a high school student at the Model Secondary School for the Deaf (MSSD), he is animating LEGO robots through computer technology.

"I grew up building with LEGO kits with complicated parts and instructions, making things like ships and helicopters, but I had to push them to make them move. Now in my robotics class, I am designing a working robot that I program to move by itself," said Thompson.

Thompson and 19 other MSSD students work in pairs with LEGO Mindstorms NXT Robot Kits to design, build, and program functional robots that use touch sensors, light sensors, and rotation sensors. "In our robotics course, I introduce the students to the basic concepts of robotics," said science teacher Mark Tao. "We focus on mechanical systems, electronics, and programming. Throughout the year, students work through activities that show how computer technology, mathematics, and science are used to resolve challenges."

The students follow instructions on how to build their creations from LEGO templates, and then they are allowed to modify those creations.  "We're building a robot to project a ball to different places on a game board," said Emmanuel Njoku. "If problems appear, we have to problem solve what's not working. Sometimes we have to disassemble and reassemble our model."

Students have an opportunity to roll out their robots as part of a national competition if they join the afterschool Botball club, which competes each spring in the Annual Greater D.C. Regional Botball Robotic Tournament. "Botball gives students hands-on experience and allows them to be creative in science and technology," said Dr. David Synder, a Gallaudet University chemistry and physics professor who mentors the team with Tao. 

Last year MSSD students finished in 4th place in the double-elimination tournament and in 10th place in the overall competition-their best performance to date.