David Mendez

Parras robotics tourney a brain sport

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by David Mendez

It’s early evening at Parras Middle School, and teacher Melanie Sullivan sounds tired but happy. Behind her, there are the chaotic sounds of rambunctious middle schoolers – the Parras Middle School Robotics club is wrapping up practice for the day.

“They were working hard — they’re a little anxious that they’re not scoring enough points yet, but we’ve got four or five more practices to go,” Sullivan said. She’s, the team coach and program sponsor, said.

This Saturday, three Parras’ robotics teams will be among 24 competitors in Redondo Beach’s FIRST Lego League robotics tournament, a qualifier for a larger regional tournament. Parras Middle School is also the host site for what organizers believe is the first robotics tournament to be held in the city.

“It’s a lot of extra hours, but it’s fun and the program is so unique,” said Sullivan, who is also serving as the tournament’s coordinator. “It’s not something students typically get to do in the classroom.”

Last year, Parras hosted a practice tournament, but this year’s qualifier is the real deal. The top five scoring teams will move on to the FLL Los Angeles Championships, which will take place over two days in La Cañada.

Sullivan has been involved with extracurricular robotics in Redondo since starting a team at Jefferson Elementary. Now teams are in each of Redondo’s schools, from the elementary level up to Redondo Union High School.

“It’s exciting because I have elementary kids, middle school, and the high school team as well,” Sullivan said.

The teams, she said, are very much like participating in athletics, with mandatory practices and competitions.

“But the unique features are that it’s testing their academic and research skills, their problem solving, and their ability to work together,” Sullivan said.

FLL teams must research a real-world problem and develop a solution; design, build and program a robot, using LEGO-based kits; and then compete on a table-top field to complete challenges. This year’s topic is Hydro-Dynamics. Teams must consider the ways in which humans find, transport, use and dispose of water.

Robotics challenges this year include replacing a section of pipe, moving manhole covers and collecting items from the field – all in miniaturized LEGO form, of course.

“Every year it’s a different scene, and each time you do this, you have to have statistics,” said Linda Hatakeyama, whose family participates in Redondo’s robotics teams. “If you’d have told me I’d have anything to do with robotics a few years ago, I wouldn’t have believed you,” she said.

The program encourages professionalism and teamwork even among competitors.

“If another team comes up and asks for a screwdriver or a flash drive, you do everything possible to help,” Hatakeyama said. “It’s competitive, but it’s friendly, with the end result that everyone is learning and being better for it.”

For Sullivan, Nov. 18 can’t come soon enough.

“We’re going to have fun, do the best we can, and walk out having learned the things we’ve done well and the things we need to do a little better,” she said. “If we get awards, great; but for me, the focus is more on walking away having learned something you might not have had the opportunity to learn.

“It’s truly why I do this chaos,” Sullivan said.

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