University professor coaches students in Lego League win
The Newark Charter School FIRST Lego League team includes, from left, Naman Agrawal, Gavy Aggarwal, UD Prof. Sunil Agrawal, Nik Theopold, Prof. Austin Lobo of Washington College, Jonathan Lobo and Ben Sydserff.

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8:08 a.m., Feb. 26, 2010----A team of middle school students co-coached by Sunil Agrawal, professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Delaware, is on its way to the FIRST Lego League World Festival in Atlanta in April.

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The five eighth graders from the Newark Charter School -- Gavy Aggarwal, Naman Agrawal, Jonathan Lobo, Ben Sydserff, and Nik Theopold -- won the 2009-2010 Delaware FLL Championship Tournament Award in January.

The team is co-coached by Austin Lobo, chair and associate professor of mathematics and computer science at Washington College in Chestertown, Md.

FIRST is an acronym for the phrase “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,” and every year FLL works with experts in the field to create a challenge that relates to a significant real-world issue. The end result is a two-part challenge that requires research to complete the project, as well as science and engineering to master the complex missions of the robot game.

The 2009 “Smart Move” Challenge was aimed at transforming the way people look at transportation. The NCS team chose school bus transportation as the focus of their project. “We all ride the bus every day,” said Aggarwal, “so we have firsthand experience with this topic.”

The team researched both bus design and routing decision-making by interviewing Jesse Wakeman, assistant principal at Newark Charter, and Robert Laws, director of transportation for the Christina School District.

Buses redesigned by this group would have airline-type compartments so book bags don't create a tripping hazard in the aisle, doors on both sides of the bus so passengers can enter and exit on either the right or the left, hybrid engines to save gas while the buses idle at stops, and GPS systems that could scan students' badges into computers and enable the best routes to be generated based on the information provided.

“But we realized that our ideas for bus design were probably too expensive to implement,” says Sydserff, “so we focused our project on routing because that's easier to change.”

All five of the students referred to the experience as “fun,” despite the grueling schedule that kept them in Agrawal's basement for hours every week after school, in the evening, and on weekends.

“The best part,” says Theopold, “is when you get near the end of the project, and things really start clicking with the robot -- when it actually starts to work the way you want it to.”

Naman Agrawal, son of Prof. Agrawal, admits that it was a lot more fun once the team reached the actual competition. “There's less stress once you're finished,” he says.

Technically, the group isn't finished because they still have to prepare for the national competition. “We want to make the robot more efficient,” says Jonathan Lobo, son of Prof. Lobo. But the group is on a temporary hiatus while its members compete in various other competitions, including Math League, Odyssey of the Mind, and Science Olympiad.

“A lot of good science comes out of activities like this, when kids are just experimenting with household items,” says Greg Meece, director of Newark Charter School. “That's when the ideas start flowing and it's how scientists and engineers work. Whether it's Legos or a chemistry set, the idea is to spur curiosity and creativity while kids are young.”

“Newark Charter was created by parents,” he adds, “and we're very happy to have parents like Mr. Lobo and Mr. Agrawal get involved with the kids in a project like this because it fits in perfectly with our game plan. It's great for students to have teachers at home as well as at school.”

Sunil Agrawal appreciates the support provided by the school, and he values the collaboration with Lobo. “The engineering and the computer science are inter-related,” he says. “It's great for the kids to see that kind of partnership.”

Lobo agrees. “There's a lot of computer science underlying a project like this, and it goes beyond programming to include designing, building, and testing.”

Participants are also scored on teamwork, and the NCS team was awarded an almost perfect score on that measure. “These kids are competitive,” says Agrawal, “but they never trample on each other--they always work together to achieve their goals.”

The team will be recognized at Legislative Hall in Dover with a House tribute sponsored by Rep. Earl Jaques (D-Glasgow) on Tuesday, March 23.

Article by Diane Kukich
Photo by Doug Baker

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