Eyes brimming with intensity and locked in a steely gaze, the combatants switched on their robots to do battle in the LEGO Sumo Challenge. The robots maneuvered and attacked. In this brawl, the loser was knocked down.
The clashes and other competitions went on for three hours as nearly 200 students from six elementary and middle schools in the Pomona and Walnut school districts converged at the Cal Poly Pomona College of Education & Integrative Studies’ sixth annual Robot Expo at Fairplex on April 27.
While it appeared to be fun and games for the students, the competition aimed to ignite a passion for math: Mastering fractions, proportions, and algebraic reasoning are needed to program the robots, which are key components in new California learning and testing standards.
“In one of the challenges, students are given some instructions, distances, turns, and angles to follow,” said Associate Professor César Larriva, spearhead of the event. “They have to understand and work with decimals, fractions, proportions, angle and linear measurement. There are a lot of Common Core standards here.”
Another challenge requires students to comprehend and measure the rate of change, “which is a lynchpin concept for calculus,” said Larriva.
Teams of two to three students are assigned a LEGO Mindstorms NXT robotics kit in the fall semester as part of their math class, and spent hours each day at school building, programming and applying the math concepts that would be used to operate their creations. The Robot Expo is the culmination of the work put in by the students.
“What they get is essentially a box full of LEGOs. The students have to create the design that they want. Some are very simplistic while others are more complicated and have claws,” said Kevin Malone, assistant to the dean at the College of Education & Integrative Studies. “It’s the Cal Poly Pomona learn-by-doing philosophy at work. “
In addition to the LEGO Sumo Challenge, teams also competed in the Gatecrasher Challenge and XBot competitions. In Gatecrasher, timing was crucial as robots traversed a 5-foot path and tried to pass through a gate that opened for only three seconds. The XBot contest required robots to follow a linear course that took sharp turns and steep angles. In both contests, understanding and applying mathematical concepts were the difference between success and failure.
Some students, in between competitions, huddled at tables inputting last-minute calculations into laptops with spreadsheets, charts and school notebooks strewn about. Other teams made trial runs with their robots before the next contest. No matter the outcome, every student received a medal for participating in the competition.
One excited girl ran up to her teammates and screamed, “We won!” after a Sumo Challenge. Classmates joined in a cheer at the team’s triumph.
The long hours of battle built up an appetite, and students were taken to Cal Poly Pomona and treated for lunch at the Los Olivos Dining Hall. Grants from public and private donors have allowed the College of Education & Integrative Studies to stage the Robot Expo and host the students on campus.
The university’s School Robotics Initiative (SRI) serves a critical need in public schools by promoting elementary- and middle-school student interest in careers in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.
“The students get better and better every year. I have to keep making the challenges harder,” said Larriva. “What’s better to help them prepare for the 21st century workplace?”