Glen Ames robotics students qualify for 12th consecutive provincial championship despite pandemic challenges

The Glen Ames Senior Public School robotics team for this year is called Level Playing Field. The team recently qualified to take part in next month's online provincial FIRST Lego League championships.

By ALI RAZA, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

No virus is stopping a team of young STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) minds from East Toronto.

Grade 8 students from Glen Ames Senior Public School are moving on to the provincial FIRST Lego League (FLL) robotics competition after recently winning the Robot Performance Award and the Core Values Award in the qualifying round. This in a school year that’s been largely dominated by COVID-19 news.

This is the 12th consecutive robotics team from Glen Ames to move on to the annual provincial championships.

Last year, one of the school’s robotics teams became the fourth in a row to qualify for the international competition – a feat that this year’s students have in their sights.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) organizes its Lego League (FLL) in part of an international alliance of educators challenging young students to find solutions to real-world challenges using Lego Mindstorms technology. This kind of Lego gives students the opportunity to put their coding skills to the test while using Lego hardware and software.

It’s a competition that promotes STEM learning, teamwork, and collaboration, teacher Luke Martin said.

And that has been a challenge made even tougher with COVID-19 restrictions this year, he said.

The team – Team 458: Level Playing Field – is made of captain Jimmy L., assistant captain Jared H., table captain Jade D., researcher Saphia K., researcher and programmer Alexandra L., technicians Ella G., Avery D., Cole L., and Liam T., and programmer Audrey B.

“This team is our first robotics team ever to never be in the same room together at the same time,” Martin said.

The students have largely worked with each other via Zoom video conferencing, and while the competition stages would normally be held at local schools, those too have been online.

But COVID-19 isn’t stopping these bright students, instead they call their robotics competition “the highlight of the pandemic.”

The competition involves three main components: there’s an innovation project, a core values presentation, and the robotics competition. It’s designed purposefully as such to offer the students a chance to expand their scope of learning beyond STEM.

“Every year at the FLL they have a different theme,” Jade said. “Our missions correspond to that theme. For this year our theme is fair play in sports.”

So students have designed the robot in question to complete tasks and programs related to “sports, treadmills, weight machines, certain things you would use for training in sports,” she added.

“One of the missions we have with the biggest success rate is the bench mission,” Jade explained.

“The robot starts in an area called ‘launch’ and it takes one attachment, removes a backpress, returns it to launch, and goes back to continue.”

It’s one of many tasks the students have designed, coded, and assembled the robot to complete.

For their innovation project, the team aimed to solve a real world problem in sports: racism.

In a presentation, they deliver strategies and incentivized goals to help sports organizations and teams become more inclusive and eliminate discrimination.
“We’re trying to help fix inclusivity and equality in sports,” Jimmy said. Their project even got support from Sportsnet.

“They were very impressed,” Jimmy added.

And for the final core values component, the team put forward teamwork, innovation, impact, inclusion, fun, and discovery as their six key core values embodied in their project and in their robotics team.

“All these components, they all teach you different things,” Ella said. “They teach you creativity, innovation, how to think outside the box to solve problems, and how to work well as a team.”

And all of this is done through Zoom. Normally the qualifiers took place in various classrooms in Toronto, the provincial championships were held at Durham College, and the international competition took place in California. This year, the students are limited to presenting their project to FIRST judges via Zoom.

The robotics teams have three major tournaments to compete in – the qualifiers, the provincials, and the international. They completed their qualifying round the week of April 5, and are headed to the provincials from May 3 to 8.

If the Glen Ames students succeed there they will move on to the international round, competing against teams across North America.

“Normally there are hundreds of FLL TDSB teams,” Martin said, but given COVID-19 restrictions and school closures, there are only 10 teams from the Toronto District School Board participating this year.

For the students at Glen Ames, the experience has lightened what has been a heavy year for students across the world.

“This year has taught me a lot of stuff,” Alexandra said. “We had to learn to problem solve, I’ve had great experience working with talented people.”

“Before I started, I applied for the robotics team not knowing anything, hoping for a new experience,” Saphia said. “I taught myself programming, I’ve learned a lot from this experience, and a lot from my teammates.”

“Before I went into robotics, I wasn’t the most confident speaker,” Liam said. “All the training I’ve done the last couple years, it’s really helped.”

Whether schools are open for in-person learning or only offering online classes, the Glen Ames team will compete in the provincials tournament the week of May 3 to 8.

Ali Raza is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter for Beach Metro News. His reporting is funded by the Government of Canada through its Local Journalism Initiative.

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