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International Lego robot competition at U of T

More than 500 competitors from around the world

(photos by Jim Ellis)

Sarah Casson wasn’t yet in middle school when she discovered a love of robots. Her interest was sparked in 2010 when her mother and other parents in Long Island, New York started up a Saturday morning robotics class at the 10-year-old’s public school.

Four years and a regional FIRST Lego League (FLL) prize later, Casson and her team traveled to the University of Toronto to test their skills and ingenuity at Canada’s first-ever FLL International Open from June 4 to 7.

The competition – hosted by U of T and FIRST Robotics Canada – brought together 1,200 competitors, coaches and family members from around the world. It was the exciting finale of FLL’s 2013-14 season, themed Nature’s Fury, with 72 teams of participants ranging in age from 9 to 16 working to master natural disasters with their Lego robots. 

Participants from as far away as India, Singapore and Brazil were tasked with three challenges. First, they shared innovative research projects for predicting, preventing or protecting people from disastrous storms, quakes and tidal waves. Then competitors tested their robots' mettle as they completed missions, such as crossing a flooded waterway to deliver emergency supplies. The third component, called “core values”, had participants completing a teamwork challenge in just five minutes, testing their ability to work collaboratively on the fly.

FIRST, which stands for “inspiration and recognition of science and technology”, is a non-profit organization that aims to inspire students to pursue careers in STEM: science, technology, engineering and math. That mission made the international open a perfect fit for the University of Toronto.

“We were excited to welcome students from all over the world to engage with the University of Toronto and the city itself, and to expose them to the amazing things our own students are doing,” said Micah Stickel, chair of first year in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering.

Engineering students from the Faculty’s outreach office wowed FLL participants with a spin in a solar car and hands-on activities that had them investigating polymers, exploring the power of hydraulics and creating a “spy” circuit with batteries, wires and switches.

The event took place in several locations on campus, with competition at Varsity Arena and in a purpose-built tent on Trinity Field, judging at OISE, and the closing ceremonies, fittingly, at Convocation Hall.

We were absolutely delighted to welcome these brilliant, budding engineers from around the world to the University of Toronto – and we would be very happy to welcome them back in the near future, as U of T students!” said President Meric Gertler. “Ever since we were selected to host the FLL International Open, the university has invested considerable time and resources to help ensure the event was a big success, and it’s been wonderful to hear so many stories bearing that out. Congratulations to all the winners, participants and organizers!”

Dave Ellis, director of FIRST LEGO League in Ontario and one of the key organizers of the event, said the multiculturalism in Toronto and at U of T made venue selection easy.

“Toronto was the clear winner for this first-in-Canada international event.  And capping it off at Convocation Hall, where thousands of U of T graduates marked the culmination of their experience here, was so fitting. The energy in the room was amazing; everyone came together to cheer on the winners and celebrate their successes.”

Casson’s team took second place in the research project category.  While she didn’t take home the top prize, she stands to be part of a future wave of engineering undergrads passionate about making an impact. “I didn’t really know much about robotics until I got involved with the Lego team. It’s really cool.”

Stickel said while he expected to see some impressive robots at the event, he was astounded by the creativity and collaboration of the competitors. 

“That they came together to solve the same problem in such different ways was really incredible. These young people took their knowledge of math and science and worked as a team to find some outstanding solutions to the challenge they were given. They are exactly the kind of people we need in engineering.”