CARLSBAD — Typically, rust is not a pleasant sight.
But for a clever group of Carlsbad eighth-graders, rust led them to a robotics championship. On Dec. 2, the Valley Girls Inc. team took first place out of 500 teams at the First Lego League Southern California Championships at Legoland, which no other Carlsbad team has done in the 12 years of the robotics program.
Now, the team is hitting the fundraising circuit and preparing for the Lego League World Championship, which runs April 17 to April 22 in Houston and features 108 teams from 50 countries.
The Valley Girls Inc. was founded as an all-girls team. But this year, after several team members entered high school, they were down four students. So, two new girls were added and two boys were “incorporated” into the team.
“They started as sixth-graders as an all-girls team from Valley Middle School,” said Mary Krescanko, robotics coordinator and fifth-grade teacher at Jefferson Elementary School. “They decided at the end of last year they needed some boys on the team. They were known as the Valley Girls and didn’t want to change the name. So they decided to incorporate the boys.”
This year’s theme focused on hydrodynamics — the motion of fluids or anything relating to the human water cycle, Krescanko said — and the students were to deliver an innovative solution to a real-world problem. The Valley Girls Inc. chose to address phosphates feeding harmful algae blooms, which are toxic to humans and wildlife.
While the team came up with its real-life solution, another part of the competition was to build a robot. The robot needed to navigate a tabletop course and teams were judged on teamwork, robot design and programming.
The students conducted massive amounts of research including speaking with professors, farmers and government officials to tackle the problem.
What they came up with was a device, dubbed the Phospho-Roller, which spins and ionically bonds with the phosphates to remove the chemical from runoff water in drainage canals, cutting off the source of phosphates to other bodies of water. The biodegradable device also provides iron to agricultural soil when depleted.
“They stick to each other instantaneously,” said 13-year-old Josie Dominguez. “It’s the easiest to tackle because iron oxide is fairly cheap, it’s easy to implement as well. It (phosphates) cycles through the drainage canal and sticks to the Phospho-Roller.”
The idea came to the students after they read an article from NASA about harmful algae blooms in Ohio. The phosphates produce toxins, which can affect the nervous system and cause dementia in sea lions, the kids learned. So, they opted to discover a way to remove the threat from waterways by comparing water samples from the U.S., Mexico, Iceland, Scotland, France and India.
Additionally, the students are also figuring out a way to recycle the phosphates, as they are used to fertilize the land and helps farmers grow their crops.
“The article stated there was going to be another high algae bloom in the Great Lakes this year,” said eighth-grader Katelyn Lewis. “We looked into what was actually causing these and we found out that phosphates were one of the nutrients causing the algae blooms to grow. We thought if we could eliminate the phosphates, the algae blooms couldn’t grow and eliminate the health concerns.”
While the real-life project is the team’s prize, they also had to navigate other challenges in the competition. Each team was required to construct a Lego robot, which navigates a course on a table about 7 feet long and 3 feet wide.
The students used computer programming to relay the instructions to the robot, and they had to conduct three missions in less than two-and-a-half minutes. Krescanko said the students began the research and early stages of the robotics throughout the summer and won a local competition in November.
In addition to Josie and Katelyn, the team is comprised of Valley Middle School students Emma Barger, Aimee Cuthbertson and Kian Ghassemian, and Nathan Hall and Raina Seth of Aviara Oaks Middle School.
But now, the students are aiming to raise $10,000 to cover expenses to Houston for the five-day World Festival. They are seeking corporate sponsorships, did an event at Pizza Port and started a GoFundMe Page. They are also teaching robotics classes as a fundraiser.
To donate to the team, visit https://www.gofundme.com/d9w4bj-valley-girls-inc-robotics-team, or contact Krescanko at Jefferson Elementary School.