Space the next challenge for youthful team of robot builders

Perfecting ‘Agent Pixel Cubed’ are. from left: Coach Brent Freer, William Nikel and Conner Freer. Cathy Dobson

Cathy Dobson

It’s competition season for Laurie and Brent Freer’s robotics team and the stakes are high.

In one week, the five-member team in Grades 6 and 8 at Bright’s Grove Public School will be at St. Patrick’s High School for the FIRST LEGO league regionals. There the robot they designed and built will be put to the test.

The team hopes they’ve done enough preparation work so their robot can successfully execute as many as 24 missions in just 2.5 minutes during competition.

The robot is made entirely from LEGO products and uses four motors, touch sensors and a brain to complete tasks such as launching a LEGO rocket, or moving a LEGO satellite.

Agent Pixel Cubed can perform up to 24 missions.
Cathy Dobson

“This is something I love,” explains 13-year-old Elisa Mark.  She is interested in sciences, technology and math.  Someday she’d like to work for NASA on a mission to Mars.

This year’s FIRST LEGO League challenge is right up Elisa’s alley.  Not only is the team building a robot, but members are also challenged to solve a problem related to long duration space travel.

Last year, it was about water conservation and the year before it was how people interact with animals.

“It’s cool,” says William Nikel, 13.  “We’re researching things that a lot of people our age haven’t taken the time to look into.”

He and teammates Jacob Robert and Conner Freer, both 11, spent about 20 hours programming this year’s robot, called Agent Pixel Cubed.

Conner’s parents, Laurie and Brent, are coaches, offering the team their basement and guidance every Thursday evening and Sunday afternoon from September to December.

It all started for the Freers eight years ago when their oldest son wanted to build robots, then their middle son and now Conner. The League is for Grades 4 – 8.

Kennedy Lucas, left, and Elisa Mark show off trophies the team has won in the past.
Cathy Dobson

“I’m actually not good with computers,” says Brent, a structural engineer. “The kids figure out the programming themselves.”

Apart from building and programming the machines to complete specific missions, the team is judged on related research, a five-minute presentation and their core values.

This team has been together three years and tends to do well at competition.  But when it comes to core values and working together with mutual respect, they admit they need to improve.

So, this year they devised a reward system in which they collect chips in a jar if they show good teamwork, and they lose chips if they are a little less than supportive.

Only nine teams are expected at the regionals on Dec. 8 and that concerns the Freers, who say there are usually 12 – 14 teams.

The program is having trouble attracting adult coaches, they say, and they don’t know why.

“There are kids I know who want to be on a team but there are no adults willing to take it on,” says Kennedy Lucas, 13.

Brent and Laurie Freer’s 2018 FIRST LEGO League team is, from left, William Nikel, coach Laurie, coach Brent, Elisa Mark, Kennedy Lucas and Conner Freer in front. Absent is Jacob Robert.
Cathy Dobson

There are 40,000 FIRST LEGO league teams worldwide.  Those who do well at the regionals in Sarnia will go on to compete at the provincials at the University of Waterloo.  The best teams wind up at the annual World Festival.

“Our teams have made it to the finals two times,” said Brent Freer.

“This program really has a huge impact on their lives.”

Anyone interested in forming a team in Sarnia-Lambton can contact Jeff Laucke at jeff.laucke@firstroboticscanada.org.