By Katie V. Jones

Sounds of delight and frustration filled the T. Howard Duckett Community Center on Dec, 21 on as members of the West Laurel Brick Busters team watched their LEGO® robots either succeed or not in completing the tasks they were programmed to do. 

Rush Kester, coach of the West Laurel Brick Busters, works with Jahvon Gordon II and Nikhila Boreddy.
Photo Credit: Katie V. Jones

Whether it was placing water units into a reservoir or dropping energy units into a bin, the various LEGO® models in the  FIRST® LEGO® League Challenge will have to complete their tasks correctly and in a timely manner if the team hopes to win its first competition, which is scheduled for Jan. 21 at Southern Regional Technology Center in Fort Washington.

Rush Kester, Lenora Dernoga, Katie V. Jones, Jessica Nichols, Maya Patel, Bob Reilly, Paul Ruffins, Lysha Williams formed the FIRST® LEGO® League Challenge team for youth in grades four through eight about three years ago. While most teams are based in schools, Brick Busters is community-based and is sponsored by the West Laurel Recreation Council.

Rush Kester and Nikhila Boreddy, left, help Jahvon Gordon II program his robot.
Photo Credit: Katie V. Jones

“Different divisions do different things with LEGOs,” said Kester, a semi-retired computer programmer. “Robots at this level are enough to be interesting to me and simple enough for kids to master. I do it more for kids to get experience engineering.”

The theme of this year’s competition is Superpowered and deals with energy and power sources. The competition details 15 possible missions for robots to complete. Each team member is required to build and program his or her own robot to push, lift and move whatever a mission requires, and team members may not touch or otherwise assist their robot. Points are given for each completed mission, and the team with the most points at the end of the competition wins.

“A lot of it is strategy. You have to decide what points to get,” explained Kester, as it is impossible for a robot to complete all the challenges in the given time frame. “Where do I start? Where do I take it? You have to calculate.”

The team’s top two robots, those that earn points in every mission, will go on to compete in the robot games portion of the challenge.

Jahvon Gordon II and Nikhila Boreddy run their robots through the course.
Photo Credit: Katie V. Jones

During weekly team meetings, members work individually but can call on each other and Kester when they need help. Members are not required to have programming experience to join, Kester said, noting that “they learn as they go through the season.”

Powerpoint tutorials explain programming, from how to program the right and left wheels differently to turn the robot,  to how to get the robot’s arm to lift or push.

“Each mission takes about two weeks to figure out and program,” said Nikhila Boreddy, 11. “I like the programing but even more the project.”

Besides the robot design and robot game portions, the competition also includes the completion of an innovation project and a core values portion. Teams participating in this year’s challenge were asked to reimagine a better energy future for their innovation project.

“It is typically related to a problem the world is having,” Kester said. “Last year, we focused on supply chain issues.”

Jahvon Gordon II works on his LEGO® robot.
Photo Credit: Katie V. Jones

Bhasker Boreddy, Nikhila’s father, likes the club because, as he said, “it makes them think.”

“They have the opportunity to do a lot of research on what to do,” he added. Boreddy helped organize a field trip to an Amazon warehouse last year so members could see how packages are robotically prepared for shipping.

A team demonstrates CORE values by showing their strength in working together, respecting each other, exploring new ideas and enjoying what they can do together to improve their world, according to the FIRST® LEGO® league website. CORE values are listed as discovery, innovation, impact, inclusion, teamwork and joy.

Jahvon Gordon II, 11, thought he was joining a normal LEGO® building club when his dad enrolled him in Brick Busters.

“I was kind of surprised,” he admitted. “It was kind of good. I like it when I program it with challenges. I feel accomplished.”

“This is priceless,” Jahvon’s dad said. “He is building and creating and this has the science to challenge him.”

As Nikhila Boreddy and Jahvon Gordon II hovered around the game mat with their robots, Kester pointed out why something did or didn’t work and provided suggestions on how to tweak the robot’s programming.

“Like the real world, programs don’t always work,” Kester said. “Wheels slip. There’s not the same traction each time. You have to be careful where your starting point is.”

A Brick Busters team must have between two and 10 members; this year’s team has five.  Kester has loaner robots members can use, or they can purchase their own. All other materials, including the game mat and the blocks to build the various missions, are covered by a small registration fee. Laurel-based Pro-Spex Residential and Commercial Inspections provided the team with logo T-shirts.

“There are a lot of smart kids in West Laurel,” Kester said. “This is a fun thing to do.”