By Shaun Ryan
If there are supply chain problems in the future, they may be solved by former St. Johns County students.
As many as 100 of those students in grades four through eight demonstrated their solutions to mock package-delivery challenges Saturday, March 26, during a robotics competition at the link. The competition was patterned after the FIRST LEGO League contests, though it wasn’t official.
The theme for the link’s inaugural robotics competition, paralleling that of the FIRST LEGO League, was “Cargo Connect.” Students working in teams programmed small robots to perform as many tasks as possible in two-and-a-half minutes on mats bearing routes for the robots to follow.
The eight participating teams, representing robotics clubs at seven local schools, chose which challenges they wanted to attempt from a pool of 16. For example, the robots might have had to pull a lever to retrieve cargo or transport it by truck or train to its destination. Careful coding was essential. One mistake could cause a robot to miss its mark.
The robots and kits needed to compete were sponsored by Northeast Florida Regional STEM2 Hub of Jacksonville.
But the robots’ performances on the tables comprised only part of the competition. The teams were also judged on innovation projects associated with the theme, as well as the actual robot designs.
“They create a model, and then they present during the judging session and talk about how they came up with it and the iterations that they went through to get to their final product,” said Diane Lawson, applied technology specialist for the school district.
The teams were also judged on adherence to core values, such as teamwork, discovery, inclusion, innovation, impact and fun.
“I think LEGO’s great, because they include that core value piece where everyone is included,” said Lawson.
Kendall Orians said his son Callen, who is in the sixth grade at Timberlin Creek Elementary School, was excited to compete.
“He gets to show off what he’s been working on,” Orians said. “A lot of times, kids don’t get the chance to express themselves outside of sports and activities like that.”
Team coach Justin Thornton, a teacher at Gamble Rogers Middle School, made a similar remark.
“With STEM and with kind of the ‘nerd subjects,’ there’s no ‘football game’ every weekend,” he said. “But this is that football game or that basketball game. This is their competition. This is why they practice.”
Megan Fernandez, coach of the Crookshank Elementary School team, explained the many things students learn in preparing for a competition like the one at the link.
“They’re learning how to work together as a team,” she said. “They’re learning how to program the robot. They’re learning to problem-solve. They’re learning how to work with people that they might not always get along with.”
As the judges convened to select a winner, link co-founder Raghu Misra presented a video from Railspire showing how programmers were using artificial intelligence to manage operations at railroad switching yards.
“This has been such a great thing for all of us,” said Lawson. “Next year’s going to be even better!”
The link is located at 425 Town Plaza Ave., Ponte Vedra Beach.