An Insider’s Look at the MoonBots Teams: RoboSpartans

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This post is a continuation of my series of profiles for teams competing in the MoonBots educational competition. In brief, MoonBots challenges teams of students (aged 9-18, with adult ‘team captains’) to essentially mimic the requirements of the $30,000,000 Google Lunar X PRIZE using free CAD software like LEGO Digital Designer and Google SketchUp and, eventually, with LEGO MINDSTORMS kits. Over two hundred teams from around the world entered the competition; only twenty finalists remain. You can also check out profile of team Shadowed Craters, which also features some additional background on the competition, and team WEBstormers, our South Africa finalists.

[This is a guest post by Will Pomerantz, Senior Director at the XPRIZE Foundation]

Today, let’s meet the New Hartford RoboSpartans. Ryan (age 12), Maysara (13), Zachary (15), and Mike (15), along husband and wife coaches Bob and Lisa, are veterans of a fairly new but quite successful FIRST LEGO League team–in just two seasons, they’ve racked up a dozen trophies. With the team getting ready to advance from FIRST LEGO League to FIRST Tech Challenge, they found MoonBots to be a good bridge program to keep their skills sharp and to provide some new challenges during that transition.

In addition to their FLL experience, though, the RoboSpartans found an additional leg up on the competition: thanks to some diligent work and the miracle of the internet, they were able to connect directly with one Google Lunar X PRIZE Teams. In the words of coach Bob: “I wanted the RoboSpartans to have a video conference with a Google Lunar X PRIZE team. It would give them an opportunity to share their Moonbots experiences and learn from scientists and engineers working on a real lunar mission. I came across the Part Time Scientists, and they seemed like a very cool group. They responded very quickly. We overcame the time zone issue and had an awesome Skype meeting on a Saturday morning. We seem to be well matched as their LEGO Mindstorms counterparts. They work in their basements – so do we. They don’t have a huge budget – neither do we. They’re just a bunch of guys with an audacious plan to plow through and do whatever it takes. The RoboSpartans are simply working on a slightly smaller scale.” Coach Lisa adds “The Part Time Scientists have a ‘cool factor’ that is off the charts, as far as the boys are concerned. Their slogan (“Hell yeah, it’s rocket science!”) captures their spirit, and certainly rings well with us. I’m sure that working with them has inspired a few ideas about what our team members will be doing in college and beyond. Rocket science seems more accessible than ever when you see what such a young team can accomplish.”

Karsten Becker, an electronics expert with the Part Time Scientists, explains the relationship from his end. “We love people that are passionate about something, and these kids appear to truly love doing awesome things with LEGO. Most of our engineers played with LEGO as children, and for many of us, it probably paved the way to a career as an engineer. Actually, most of us would enjoy participating in MoonBots even now–if we weren’t so busy with our real rover. It is awesome to see what one can do with the MINDSTORMS kit nowadays. And with such an exciting project as building Moon rovers, it is very easy to encourage young people to pursue a study in the STEM fields. With this unique opportunity comes the unique responsibility to do something sustainable, and we take this responsibility very seriously.”

You can watch in on a video-conference meeting between the Robo-Spartans and the Part Time Scientists here:

The dynamic between the two groups is even more interesting, as they are facing a number of the same (or at least highly similar) challenges! Coach Bob says that the most difficult aspect of MoonBots thus far has been “getting the right wheels to conquer the LEGO terrain and get over the lunar ridge … The boys have made a few dozen changes to their wheel structure. For a while, changes were daily. At one of our team meetings, we reviewed the Part Time Scientists’ web page and learned that they too went through several wheel designs. We wish we had the option of using the Part Time Scientists’ wheels! If LEGO made those – we’d be ahead of schedule.”

Coach Lisa notes that, thanks to the competition and to their new relationship with the Part Time Scientists, “We have all learned a great deal about the Google Lunar X Prize, the Moon, past lunar missions and rocketry. We’ve even adopted rocketry as a new hobby. It’s a happy diversion when we get stuck or just need a break.”

So, what’s next for the RoboSpartans? Again, Coach Lisa: “This challenge also gave us an opportunity to focus on more advanced NXT programming that we can use in FTC this fall. All of our ups and downs are lessons that the team can apply to any future project, from high school to college to careers. Though we’re not quite at the point where we can buy a real rocket and start our own mission to the Moon, we’ll definitely be watching the Part Time Scientists’ progress, as it could easily be the future of our own team. Give our boys a few years and they’ll probably be doing something similar.”

That’s the kind of confidence we love to hear! Speaking of confidence: how do the RoboSpartans feel about their chances of winning the whole tournament? “We feel we have as good a chance as any team to win. So far, the boys managed to do things that defy expectations of a small neighborhood team. We’ve managed to conquer incredible odds before, we can do it again. The RoboSpartans, as I’m sure is the same with other teams, pretty much gave up their summer to work on MoonBots. Recognition of all their hard work would be mean a great deal.”

So, please join me in wishing the RoboSpartans–and the Part Time Scientists, for that matter–good luck! As always, any discussion here does not imply anything whatsoever when it comes to selection of the overall winners of the competition. May the best team win!

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