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Learning with LEGOs

Penn Valley students participated in Northern California FIRST LEGO League Championship robotics and LEGO competition last Saturday.
Submitted by Mike Oitzman |

A group of seven young Penn Valley students competed in a rigorous robotics, research and teamwork challenge last Saturday in a regional qualifier for the Northern California FIRST LEGO League Championship robotics and LEGO competition and advanced to the championship round.

The regional qualification competition consisted of three separate challenges; robotics, a research project and team building, according to the Penn Valley team’s coach, Mike Oitzman.

“The robotics part is what draws most kids in,” said Oitzman, the team’s self-proclaimed “rookie coach.”



Competitors had three separate two-and-a-half minute robotics missions, during which a robot was programed and built using LEGO blocks and LEGO robotics components to fulfill the specifications of the mission, Oitzman said.

“I was really proud,” he said. “Each round they improved by watching other kids.”




The team’s score for each round in the robotics challenge increased significantly, from 60 points in round one to 115 points in round three, said Oitzman.

Oitzman, an engineer, said he began his career in robotics, and through LEGO’s Mindstorms products, was able to share his interest in robotics with his son, Nolan.

Nature’s Fury was the theme for the research portion of the competition, in which teams were required to choose a natural disaster, research it and come up with a robotics-based solution for a problem associated with the disaster, said Oitzman.

“We chose wildfires, since we live in wildfire country,” said Oitzman.

In speaking with firefighters who fought the Rim Fire, communication seemed to be one of the biggest problems the firefighters faced, Oitzman said.

In order for firefighters to communicate across mountainous terrain, sometimes a guy would have to climb to the top of a mountain, he said.

The Penn Valley team’s solution to the communication problem was to use a radio-controlled helicopter equipped with a radio repeater to transmit communication signals over mountainous terrain, Oitzman explained.

The solution was enough to propel the team to the championship round.

Only the top 10 teams were qualified to advance to the championship.

The teamwork portion of the competition was based on the team dynamics and problem-solving skills, said Oitzman.

Oitzman would like to continue coaching robotics teams in the future.

“FIRST Robotics League is for high school students,” he said. “I will be taking my son to the high school level next year.”

“I would like to make this a countywide thing,” he added.

“I’ve always looked up to my dad,” said Nolan. “He worked on actual robots.”

Nolan said he would someday like to be an aerospace engineer “or something like that.”

“These kids are the next generation of engineers,” said Oitzman, who is passionate about building interest in science, math and engineering.

Through FIRST LEGO and Robotics Leagues, students from kindergarten through 12th grade have the opportunity to be involved in robotics’ competitions.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is an international not-for-profit organization that was founded in 1989 to motivate enthusiasm in young people for engineering, technology, mathematics and science, according to the organization’s website.

If you are interested in forming a local FIRST LEGO or Robotics League team, contact Oitzman at mike.oitzman@hotmail.com.

Jessica Snapp is a freelance writer in Nevada County.


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