Solana Beach robotics team earns Gracious Professionalism award

By Megan McVay

Few people are wired to program a robot and calculate its movements down to the very last centimeter. So, naturally, when members of the Solana Beach community learned about a sixth-grade robotics team called Einstein Works, they were shocked and more than willing to plug themselves into the team’s efforts and help out.

This summer, Solana Beach resident Judy Wagner began the planning stage of the Skyline sixth-grade robotics team with her daughter, Hannah Wagner, and her daughter’s classmate, Jack Resnick. Soon, the two-person team grew and the official team of nine was established in late September and began preparing for its first competition at High Tech High, which was held on Nov. 6.

Although Einstein Works is certainly one-of-a-kind in the Solana Beach community, the team is only one of the 19,800 teams from 50-plus countries created under the FIRST program, called FIRST Lego League (FLL).

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is a nonprofit public charity founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway (the first self-balancing, zero emissions personal transportation vehicle). The charity’s goal is to foster important life capabilities, including self-confidence, communication and leadership, and ultimately inspire young people to become science and technology leaders.

Einstein Works is a part of the FIRST program called Lego League, a program that seeks to expose students from the ages of 9 to 14 to real-world engineering challenges by requiring them to build LEGO-based robots to complete tasks on a thematic playing surface.

For this rookie robotics team, the only thing more problematic than a potential electricity shortage was their time shortage. Because they established their team late in September, they had little over a month to prepare for the FLL Qualifying Tournament.

Even before beginning the tedious programming process, Einstein Works was faced with its first challenge: raising $700 to buy the necessary materials to build its robot. However, with multiple yard sales, donation letters and the support of its sponsors, Jersey Mike’s, Essex & Harvey, Dividend Technology Group and Pamplemousse Grille, the team raised the necessary funds and soon realized that monetary matters were only part of the equation.

Along with a LEGO-based robot, each team was required to present a skit, a scientific project and a core values list for the qualifying competition at High Tech High.

This year, the FIRST Lego League Tournament theme was “Food Factor.” Each team was required to research a problem regarding food contamination, formulate a solution and then present its findings in the form of a poster and a skit. Due to the recent outbreak of Listeria in cantaloupe, the team researched Listeria and proposed a hypothetical spray solution called “Mr. Lister” that would contain food grade hydrogen peroxide and chlorine bleach to kill the bacteria.

“The cool thing about Einstein Works is that we get to solve problems. At school we only get to learn about them,” said team member Jack Hargis.

To the nine sixth-graders of Einstein Works, E=MC2 was more than Einstein’s famous equation that explained the relationship between matter and energy; it was the product of countless hours of programming, thinking and measuring. Before the competition, the nine aspiring scientists gathered at their mentor and coach’s house after school three days a week to work on their presentation and robot named “E=MC2.”

After enduring a computer crash the night before the competition and consequently working later than expected on the finishing touches, the team members woke up early the next morning, wired and ready to flaunt their technological prowess for the judges and the 19 other teams.

They walked onto the High Tech High campus clad in their white Einstein wigs, lab coats and lime green team t-shirts and began their full schedule of competitions and presentations.

Throughout the day, the team members demonstrated their teamwork, respect for all competitors and exceptional list of core values. Ultimately, at the end of the day, it was this team’s chemistry that earned Einstein Works the honorary Gracious Professionalism award. Gracious Professionalism is a term coined by Dr. Woodie Flowers, the FIRST national advisor and Pappalardo professor emeritus of mechanical engineering. The notion of Gracious Professionalism is the foundation of FIRST and calls for high-quality work and respect of individuals and the community, and Einstein Works displayed this attitude most highly.

Now, the team members are continuing to fundraise and advance their robot for their next FLL tournament in February at Legoland. The team members plan to stay together until the eighth grade and thereby live out their team motto: “One year goes nowhere, but many years are the start of great ideas.”

“It’s amazing how the kids can really get into it and use everything in their minds to accomplish what they want to accomplish,” said Judy Wagner, the team’s coach and mentor.

Yes, through Einstein Works, these young students have learned how to program a robot and calculate its movements down to the very last centimeter.

Although, perhaps more importantly, the teammates have learned to utilize every watt of their brainpower in order to create innovative posters, t-shirts, skits, fundraising techniques and core values.

After all, in the words of Albert Einstein, imagination is more important than knowledge.