2018-06-13 / Featured / News

Third-graders win international robotics challenge


Katelyn Luu and Claire Adcock with their phoenix-saving robot park ranger, Dash. Luu and Adcock, third-graders at Spring Run Elementary, won first place in this year’s Wonder League Robotics Competition. 
ASH DANIEL Katelyn Luu and Claire Adcock with their phoenix-saving robot park ranger, Dash. Luu and Adcock, third-graders at Spring Run Elementary, won first place in this year’s Wonder League Robotics Competition. ASH DANIEL It’s opening day at a new park on Space Island, and the festivities are in full swing.

In the valley under the park’s volcano, a marching band plays; overhead, a volley of fireworks lights up the sky like splatters of paint.

Awoken by the commotion, the previously inactive volcano suddenly springs to life, spewing smoke and causing those assembled to flee. In the melee, Dot the phoenix accidentally leaves behind Lilly, one of her three hatchlings. Now it’s up to Dash, a robot park ranger, to save the day.

This scenario – and the coding involved to bring it to life – won Chesterfield’s Katelyn Luu and Claire Adcock first place in this year’s Wonder League Robotics Competition, a contest where students are asked to solve different missions through code.

To win, the third-graders from Spring Run Elementary conquered a competition that initially included 7,100 teams from around the world split between two age groups. Of those teams, only 232 were invited to the final round, with 175 submitting entries.

The 9-year-olds’ journey to victory began when they met in kindergarten, eventually becoming best friends. Two years ago, Luu took a class at Richmond’s MathScience Innovation Center. Intrigued by robotics and coding, Luu received Wonder Workshop’s Dash and Dot robots, small mechanical toys made of blue plastic. Adcock, whose father is a computer programmer, already had a knack for coding.

Knowing that the girls had an interest in coding, Luu’s father Kieu enrolled them in the competition last fall.

“I figured putting the two of them together on this project would be a good way for them to learn something and have a good time,” says Kieu Luu, who is also the team’s coach.

Before reaching the final round, each team must complete three different, increasingly difficult missions designed by Wonder Workshop. Throughout the competition, teams keep logbooks to track their progress, and submit evidence of their work. In addition to documentation, teams are judged on their creativity and the efficiency of their coding.

Named Husky Power – after Spring Run’s mascot – the team did well in each round, including the final, where they were required to create an attachment arm for their robot, which then had to pick up a ping-pong ball off the top of a Solo cup and deposit it inside another cup. All aspects of the coding, scenario, decoration and story were the girls’ doing.

A video of their winning entry, shot at the Luus’ house, shows the decorated Dash robot approach a smoldering “volcano” made from a Solo cup. The robot picks up and saves Tilly the baby phoenix, a yellow ping-pong ball, from the top of the volcano, catching on fire in the process. He then puts out the fire with a 360-degree turn and then deposits the ball safely inside the nest. The YouTube video of the entry features a disclaimer: “No phoenixes, ping-pong balls, Dash or Dot robots were harmed during the production of this video.”

Still, there was some trial and error. After attempting to have the robot complete three 90-degree turns during rehearsals, they realized it would take too long and increase the possibility for error. Instead, they figured out that a single 65-degree turn would suffice. Though Dash can be controlled by joystick through an iPad, all aspects of the competition are preprogrammed.

“You just push a button and it goes,” says Kieu Luu, an anesthesiologist.

The third-graders found out they had won first-place during a live broadcast held in their classroom at Spring Run Elementary on May 23.

Asked about winning, Adcock says it was “super-duper exciting.”

“Yeah, like super-duper, duper exciting,” Katelyn Luu says.

Their prize is $5,000 for STEAM items; STEAM is an acronym for the engaging of students through the subjects of Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics.

“It was incredible,” says Kieu Luu of winning. “It was a total surprise for me.”

Katelyn Luu, who plays piano and takes karate lessons, says her favorite part of the competition was decorating Dash for the challenges. Adcock says her favorite part was the coding itself. Both have plans to attend the center-based gifted program at Winterpock Elementary next year.

Asked what she’ll do when she grows up, Katelyn Luu says she wants to become a doctor, though she’s unsure of what field she’ll specialize in. For her part, Adcock wants to be a book editor: “I like telling people when they do something wrong, and I like reading books.” ¦

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