Southeast Portland teens win worldwide robotics championship

See the triumphant return of teenagers from Winterhaven School and da Vinci Middle School, after they bested all other teams at the international First Lego League competition, and won the gold‚ er, plastic‚ trophy‚

The triumphant “Pigmice” return to Winterhaven School: Co-coach Kasi Allen Fuller, Nathan Fuller, Morgan Pengelly, Olivia Bolles (a daVinci Middle School student), Keegan Livermore, Flannery Bethel, Hallie Frost and co-coach Greg Banks.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
When the van transporting the team of three girls and three boys, all seventh-graders, pulled up on front of Winterhaven School in Southeast Portland on April 16, the cheers of hundreds of students rang through the neighborhood.

This team, known as “The Pigmice”, first became friends when they all attended third grade together at the now-closed Edwards Elementary.

The student body of Winterhaven School turns out with signs and banners to welcome the Team Pigmice, the First Lego League world champions.

Co-coached by Lewis & Clark College education professor Kasi Allen Fuller and builder Greg Banks, “Pigmice” team members are Winterhaven students Nathan Fuller, Morgan Pengelly, Keegan Livermore, Flannery Bethel, Hallie Frost and daVinci Middle School student Olivia Bolles.

“It’s clear that being long-time friends, instead of just teammates, gave them an advantage,” comments co-coach Greg Banks. “Part of their score is based on how well they work together as a team.”

We learn these young inventors prepared for this competition for four years, partly by learning three computer languages.

Members of the Pigmice seemed genuinely surprised by the grand welcome they received from fellow students and faculty members.

SE Portland’s Pigmice take on the world
Cathy Swider, Oregon Robotics Tournament & Outreach Program administrator, fills us in on the massive scope of the competition won by The Pigmice. 90,000 students from 49 countries participated in the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) LEGO League (FLL) season.

Swider tells us, “In Oregon, the Pigmice competed and won the Intel Oregon FLL Qualifying and Championship Tournaments among a field of 359 teams. Then, they advanced to the World Festival where they competed against 94 teams from 22 countries in Atlanta, Georgia April 12 – 14.”

In Atlanta’s Georgia Dome, Swider says, the Pigmice team ran their robot on the “challenge field” to determine their robot’s performance. “The team also met with technical judges who assessed their scientific knowledge.”

Then, the close-knit team made a project presentation, focusing on a nanotechnology solution to the problem of plastics pollution in the Pacific Ocean. Finally the team completed a “teamwork exercise” in view of teamwork judges.

The result: the Pigmice were judged to be the team that scored the highest in all categories and demonstrated gracious professionalism.

“They were awarded the 2007 FIRST LEGO League 1st Place Champion’s Award,” says Swider. “In addition, they will be guests of IBM’s Don Eigler, known as the Father of Nanotechnology. Compliments of IBM, the team will visit the IBM Venture Research Park, to meet with nanotechnology scientists and engineers.”

Students, faculty and family of the Pigmice rush to welcome the returning students.

The winners speak
“Our project presentation went really well,” says Morgan Pengelly. “The judges liked our presentation, so we were one of ten or so teams who were called back. That was really cool. It put us closer to where we were aiming.”

Pengelly continues, “Then, we got the highest score we could get on the ‘table run’. I know other teams did well, but I think we were balanced in every category.”

Asked about the robots, Keegan Livermore volunteers, “We made a robot out of Lego parts and electronic parts. Every robot is allowed an NXT, a little computer that you can program. So you can use the NXT along with light, touch, and rotation sensors to drive motors. The touch sensor, for example, lets the robot ‘feel’ something.”

Importance of winning
We asked the group why they thought bringing home the championship to Oregon is important. Nathan Fuller replies for the group, “I think it has opened up a lot of new doors for Oregon First Lego League. We’re getting publicity.”

More than just basking in the public spotlight, Fuller thoughtfully continues, “We’ll be able to attract more students to this kind of activity. Hopefully, we’ll be having 475 teams competing next year. Hopefully, we’ll increase Oregon’s level of competition, so another team can go and take the World Championship next year.”

As the throng of students surges to meet their world championship team, Pigmice team member Hallie Frost gets a big hug from friends. “I’ve been attacked,” she says, “but in a good way. This is so sweet.”

Why “Pigmice”?

“Pigmice is a game, explains Hallie Frost. When a TV reporter asked, specifically why they chose the name, she adds with a twinkle in her eye,  “Because there are more than one of us. Otherwise, it would be ‘Pigmouse’. In the game, Pigmice are a highly evolved form of sewer rat that lives in the garbage disposal.”

Plastic trophy, golden feelings
Frost proudly shows us their trophy. “This is the trophy that signifies we’re the best team in the world. Yes, it is made entirely of Legos. The feeling right now is ‘wow’.”

© 2007 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News Service

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