UCode lego team

The UCode team shown here working on their robot. (Photo by Casey Martin)

After weeks of work, a team of elementary school students will put a wide-range of skills on display this weekend when they take their city shaping, affordable housing and interpersonal skills with hopes of advancing past the first round of the annual First Lego League competition.

The UCode Lego team, which has been meeting for two months at UCode’s Ithaca Mall location and working on the project, includes four students from two local schools. Avital Sagan, Shaan Jena and Eafan Chen all go to Elizabeth Ann Clune Montessori School, while Robert Kong attends Northeast Elementary School. They are coached by David Sagan, a Cornell physicist and senior research associate. The competition is being held this weekend in Corning, with 17 teams competing from around the region. If the UCode team is able to place in the top 40 percent of participants, they move onto the next round of competitors. UCode is a learning program that teaches kids coding and computer programming, among other tech-centric skills.

The team has been working to construct a course and program a robot since the summer. The robot is controlled by a computer that the kids have pre-programmed, mapping out its movements around a “city” that they have constructed using Legos. The course includes several tasks that the robot, which is also made of Legos, should accomplish, including releasing a swingset and dropping an anvil, among others. The students have 90 seconds to complete all this, meaning they can’t waste much time with mistakes or missed tasks.

“It all depends how efficient we are,” Jena said at a recent practice.

The number of tasks they are able to accomplish are worth certain amounts of points that are added together to compile a final score, along with points picked up from other competition criteria. The robotics aspect makes up one of the three total portions of the competition. The other two are called Core Values, which measures how the teammates interact with each other and the way they handle respecting the other teams while in competition with them, and Innovation Project.

The Innovation Project requires teams to identify a societal problem and then create a solution for it, quite separate from the robot competition. Ithacans ought to be familiar with the problem the team chose to tackle: affordable housing. With so much discussion about that, though, the team wanted to choose a new potential approach to the problem, which led them to settle on a new kind of construction, modular housing, instead of the more conventionally discussed options. The team prepared a PowerPoint presentation, with each member researching and making a different slide, to explain their solution.

Modular housing is made off-site in a factory, then transported to its site and placed on a permanent foundation. This is what separates it from mobile homes, as once they are set in place the intention is for them to stay there long-term. Modular housing is noted for its affordability, since their production is cheaper than on-site home construction, and also its energy-efficiency advantages that are usually included during its factory construction. The team said they felt that modular housing isn’t as discussed as other affordable housing solutions, and so, to keep with their intention of thinking outside the box, they chose it as their solution.

“We wanted to help the homeless, but we already have a homeless shelter here,” Avital Sagan said. “So we did research, and modular housing seems kind of underrated.”

Confidence is important as well. So, does the team think they will be able to win? When asked, the answer is a resounding “no.” Then a small pause. As they test the robot, they’re right, sometimes it doesn’t work; twice in a row its motions are not strong enough to set the chain of events in motion that will drop the anvil as it is supposed to do. On the third attempt, it works, drawing small cheers from Kong and Jena as they watch.

“It’s important to have positive expectations,” Avital Sagan said.


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