Penn Alexander Robotics Team earns a ticket to international championship

March 2, 2016

The Penn Alexander Robotics Team is on a mission to reduce waste and improve recycling in their school — and their work earned them a trip to the St. Louis World Festival. The students have raised just over $12,000 through a GoFundMe campaign within 18 days, enough to make the trip.

Photo courtesy of Penn Alexander Robotics Team

The team of ten middle school students has spent this year preparing for the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Lego League Regional Competition, hosted earlier this month at the University of Pennsylvania GRASP Lab. Teams were challenged to choose a trash-related problem to solve and communicate to their fellow students. The team won the presentation category, and had the highest combined points average in presentation, core values, and robot design. Based on their performance, Penn Alexander was invited to April’s World Festival, which brings together winning Lego League teams from around the globe.

When they learned about the Trash Trek challenge in September, the team — coached by science teacher Stephanie Kearney — conducted a waste audit to best target the problem. To encourage recycling, they wrote a script, composed a song, and filmed a music video to educate others on the dos and don’ts of recycling in the school cafeteria. Their program was fully implemented in January and has been successful at encouraging school-wide participation.

“We now have waste-free Wednesdays, where students are entered into a monthly raffle for bringing in a waste-less lunch,” said Kearney. “The school has reduced cafeteria waste by 38%.”

The team also built and programed an autonomous robot, which they affectionately named Robert. Built entirely out of Legos, Robert navigates a Lego course demonstrating good practices, such as running a trash-sorting machine, removing plastic bags from wildlife, and properly disposing of a demolished building.

“I’m proud of the team for building and programming robots without having prior experience,” said Kearney. “They use the engineering design process to solve problems and improve their strategies.”

The Penn Alexander Robotics Team embraces the competition’s core values of teamwork and positive attitudes, meeting in Kearney’s classroom every day for lunch—sometimes they work on Robert, and other times they just socialize and have fun together. In preparation for the World Festival, they have been looking for ways to expand their project by sharing their ideas with other district schools. The team is also discussing the possibility of broadening the project to include the entire community.

“The team is proud of the impact they are having on our school and potentially other schools as well,” said Kearney. “I value how this experience might influence the path the students take in high school, college, and beyond.” 

Penn Alexander is one of the Penn’s partner schools, and is located at the western edge of campus. Penn provides a financial contribution to reduce class size, enhances the educational program, provides professional development, and maintains the grounds.  

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