How one club turns Legos into robots

In the children's section at the new and different looking Barnes & Noble at The Village of Rochester Hills there is a L
In the children's section at the new and different looking Barnes & Noble at The Village of Rochester Hills there is a LEGO activity table for kids to use and LEGO kits for their parents to buy. (Eric Seals/Detroit Free Press/TNS)

If you’ve ever used Legos to build a car that can wheel around, a pulley that can lift stuff or a claw that can grab an item, then you’ve gotten almost halfway to engineering a robot.

That’s part of what kids can learn to do in FIRST Lego League, a hands-on club where students build and program robots and come up with solutions to problems they see in their communities.

“It’s not just playing with Legos,” said Charles Kwiatkowski, one of the coaches at NewBoCo in Cedar Rapids.

But that’s how it starts.

The kids on Kwiatkowski and Randy Bachman’s Lego League team use the interconnecting blocks to build the robot. That might not look like what you’re picturing, Bachman said, and usually isn’t a big, metal being that can walk across a room.

“It’s basically like a rover,” Bachman said. “Like the ones we’ve watched on Mars during remote missions.”

Students have to program the robot to move through an obstacle course, and eventually their engineering marvels compete against the robots from thousands of other teams. The robots have to be autonomous — act and move on their own, without any kind of remote control — so students have to program them.

“We always start off with the logic behind what they’re trying to accomplish so they can see step-by-step what they need to do,” Bachman said. “Kind of like if you decided you wanted to get up and walk to the kitchen.”


That journey doesn’t just happen, he said. First you’d have to take a bunch of smaller actions — pushing your chair back, turning sideways, walking to the door, walking through the door, and on and on until you completed your mission to reach the fridge.

All of that coding happens so quickly in our brains that we usually miss it. But when you’re programming a robot, it has to be spelled out.

Teams aren’t coming together to work on their robots and projects right now, but Bachman said there are robot simulation programs online where kids can practice. Using the Legos in your house, you could also design a low-tech robot — he recommended designing a set of arms that can open and close when you turn its gears.

The other part of Lego League is solving a problem in your community or neighborhood. In the past, Kwiatkowski said students have developed an app that could figure out how much water a community would need in a day. Last year, kids designed a storm shelter that could be built by robots. What sort of problem would you want to solve? How could you use STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — to do it?

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