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By Christy Somerville
They are men with a mission, to seek and destroy any disorder that may lurk in the corners of their miniature landscape. Their tools are sophisticated, and yes, they have matching outfits. They are not the Power Rangers, but they do have a cool name, and nerves of pure plastic. Who are they?
They are the Robo Raiders, seven boys from Virginia and West Virginia, who have together formed a new lego team. Led by eleven-year-old spokesperson, advisor, and chief programmer Joel Lyons, the Raiders placed 8th out of 60 in the First Lego League state competition. Incidentally, they are homeschooled.
Joel's mom Patty Lyons, one of the moms who gave approximately six hours a week out of their busy homeschool lives, told how it all began. Way back in August of 2002, she saw an email on HELLO, the local email loop for homeschoolers. Somebody wanted to start a lego group.
Theoretically, the group would buy a $550 dollar kit from First Lego League. They would build and program a robot using the kit, which was then to be entered in the competition. The contest played to a tune of community service, so each team had to program their robot for city work. A kit included miniature rocks that could be cleared from tiny soccer fields, small windmills in need of powering, and little broken bridges. The robot would be designed, built, and programmed to carry out these tasks.
There were supposed to be ten children on the team, but in the end there were seven. Patty said that she had had no idea how much time commitment the group would involve, but she'd do it all over again anyway. She saw clear benefits for her son. Joel would have Christian fellowship, a chance to work with his favorite gadgets, and to find out just how much he really liked building robots.
As with most homeschool co-ops, everybody pitched in. Joel's dad Bob Lyons took his son to tournaments, which Patty considered a wonderful father-son experience. The regional competition was a day-trip, but for state competing one of the fathers put up all his frequent traveler points to get hotel rooms for the boys. The moms organized a bake sale for November 1st, and made $250. They also asked local businesses for help, and were partially funded by 4-H. All this paid for entry fees and traveling costs, as well as matching team sweatshirts for the boys.
Finally, in early November, all the hours of work paid off. At regionals, the Robo Raiders walked out with 4th place. Patty recalls getting the news from her husband and being completely shocked. The moms thought that, after regionals, they would be able to ease their schedules. Instead, there were two more weeks of effort. After regionals, the boys rebuilt and reprogrammed their robot from the ground up, fixing each of the problems that had been pointed out to them.
The state level judges were all volunteers and engineers who questioned the boys on their technical knowledge, listened to prepared speeches, watched the robots perform, and considered the level of teamwork involved. Based on these areas, the Robo Raiders earned their 8th place, although it was only their first year of competition. One of the judges was amazed at the boys' skill level. Seven moms breathed a sigh of relief, and seven boys went home with visions of next year dancing in their heads.
Joel says that his favorite part of the project was programming. He wrote "five or six" programs using infrared ports on the robot and computer and software. Everybody said he was great. Does young Joel want to be a master engineer when he grows up? Well, not quite. He wants to work on robots that hunt terrorists for the FBI, or write science-fiction novels, or maybe just work at Legoland. He's heard that you can get paid just to play games there.
Next year, the team re-convenes for another fall of hectic work. These boys are just seven more promising homeschoolers, catching dreams and playing out back in the tree fort after their robot meetings are over.
Editor's Note: We at HSLDA suspect there are numerous other homeschoolers around the country involved in this competition. A team of homeschooled students recently won the First Lego League robotics competition held at SciTrek in Atlanta, Georgia. That team earned a perfect score in the final round. The Georgia team, Urban Argonauts, is comprised entirely of homeschooled students ages 9-14. Another homeschool team also competed in the Georgia tournament and came in sixth place. Thanks to Susan Martucci for letting us know about it.
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