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Local Students Talk to NASA Astronaut, Build Robots

FIRST LEGO League team, the Space Invaders, show their medals
Back row, left to right: Advisor Hemlata Kothawale, Navya Alva, Arya Pathare, Shrusti Gandas, Vatsal Bhakar. Front row, kneeling: Vedanga Pathare. 

Above photo: David Drive Middle School students and members of the local FIRST LEGO League team, the Space Invaders: Back row, left to right: Advisor Hemlata Kothawale, Navya Alva, Arya Pathare, Shrusti Gandas, Vatsal Bhakar. Front row, kneeling: Vedanga Pathare.

‘Twas September 2018 and all through the North Carolina Space Grant office at NC State University, the NC Space Grant team was wondering why our inboxes were filling with emails from middle school students all over the state. We quickly discovered it was all because of LEGOs. FIRST® LEGO® Leagues, to be exact.

The FIRST LEGO League is a collaboration between the LEGO Group – yes, the ones who make the toys beloved by kids of all ages – and the FIRST nonprofit, which was created to inspire youth to pursue further studies and careers in science and technology, and to help students acquire the knowledge and skills needed to compete in the technologically-driven global economy. The yearly competition gives students the chance to develop, design, build and code LEGO MINDSTORMS® robots to perform autonomous “missions” on a themed playing field. The goal is to design innovative solutions to a real-world problem inspired by the theme.

To our surprise and delight, the FIRST LEGO League Challenge had announced the 2018-19 theme was INTO ORBIT, which meant that FIRST LEGO League Challenge teams across the nation would spend the year learning about space exploration technology. We’re all in favor of that!

INTO ORBIT challenges students to explore space concepts, like what it takes to live on a space station or travel to another planet, or what critical innovations could possibly get Earthlings to Mars. This year, students needed to think about long-term solar system exploration and all the complications it would entail, such as extreme heat and cold, resource scarcity; isolation from other humans; and the need to maintain physical health while off the Earth.

Rather than tackle the many questions coming in from individual teams, most of which were very specific to astronaut health, NC Space Grant Associate Director, Jobi Cook hit upon the ideal way to address all the students’ questions at once – ask an astronaut directly! She got on the phone with NASA and arranged for former NASA Astronaut Gregory H. Johnson – a veteran of two space flights, STS-123 in 2008 and STS-134 in 2011 – to conduct a statewide webinar exclusively for North Carolina students. Approximately 600 students and mentors participated in the one-day webinar. By the end of the year, the video recording of the webinar reached 500 views on FIRST North Carolina’s webpage.

Curious what Astronaut Johnson had to say? Watch for yourself on the FIRST North Carolina webpage.  

The NC Space Grant staff had the opportunity to get to know one particularly persistent team, the Space Invaders. By coincidence, NC Space Grant Assistant Director Sandy Canfield also happens to moonlight as a swim coach for school-aged competitive swimmers, and some of her swimmers are also Space Invaders. While Canfield did not provide any technical assistance to the Space Invaders in their tasks, to maintain fairness, she noted, “I have seen many of the team members operate in a competitive-sport environment, so I knew they would bring a similar work ethic to the robotics competition. They also have skills in teamwork and time management, which lend well to these types of competitions.”

A hearty good luck wish to all the North Carolina FIRST LEGO League teams in their robotics adventures!

Back row, left to right: Advisor, Hemlata Kothawale, Vedanga Pathare, NC Space Grant Assistant Director Sandy Canfield, Vatsal Bhakar, Arya Pathare. Front row, kneeling: Navya Alva, Shrushti Gandas.

Interview with the local FIRST LEGO League team, the Space Invaders

Team members:

  1. Navya Alva: Age 13, Grade 8
  2. Vatsal Bhakar: Age 12, Grade 7
  3. Shrushti Gandas: Age 13, Grade 8
  4. Arya Pathare: Age 12, Grade 6
  5. Vedanga Pathare: Age 13, Grade 8
  • Advisor: Hemlata Kothawale

NC Space Grant: How did you happen to get together to form a team?

Vedanga Pathare: We all go to Davis Drive Middle School, but are a private team. We got together because we all know each other personally. 

Shrushti Gandas: We created this team through friends and kids with an interest in robotics.

NCSG: Why did the team decide to compete in FIRST? In which FIRST competition did you compete?

Vedanga Pathare: The FIRST competition we compete in is the FLL (FIRST LEGO League). We all find LEGO robotics very interesting and three of our members had also participated in FLL in 2016.

Nayva Alva: Our team decided to compete in FIRST because all of us are interested in coding, programming and building and we thought it would be fun to compete.

Vatsal Bhakar: We thought it would be fun to learn problem-solving using robotics. Also, we could use our creativity to solve mission problems and real-world problems. 

NCSG: What was it about the space theme this year that team members found interesting?

Arya Pathare: Since it has a space theme, we got the chance to research about radiation.

Nayva Alva: The most interesting thing we found about the space team this year was that there so many problems astronauts are facing when traveling into space and we get to research and find solutions to these problems.

Vatsal Bhakar: One of the many things we found interesting is that astronauts can have live conversations from the ISS. What we also found interesting about this year’s space theme is the fact that space itself is an interesting frontier that is very different than Earth. There are stars dying, supernovas occurring and new stars being born. Space keeps science moving on to new questions.   

NCSG: What did you learn from the webinar with Astronaut Johnson? 

Shrushti Gandas: We learned further about challenges astronauts face in space and better perspective on what it’s like to be in space.

Nayva Alva: We learned about bone density and muscle mass and how being in space affects these and other things in an astronaut’s body.

Vatsal Bhakar:  Many astronauts suffer serious illnesses, like depression, from being gone from their families. They also may suffer from radiation poisoning and other space issues.     

NCSG: Were you able to apply anything you learned from Johnson to your project? If so, what and how?                                                                            

Arya Pathare: We got a better perspective on how an astronaut lives life in space.

Shrushti Gandas: We were able to use the information we got for a better perspective on astronauts’ problems.

NCSG: How did you come to ask NC Space Grant for assistance?

Shrushti Gandas: We found NC Space Grant online and we asked you for assistance because we wanted to learn more closely and ask questions about space.

Arya Pathare: We just needed to talk with some people who knew a lot about space, so we found you.

NCSG: How did you prepare for the competition?

Vedanga Pathare: We spent a lot of time running our programs back to back, as if we were in the actual competition. For our project, we rehearsed many times, as if we were presenting in front of the judges.

NCSG: What was the most memorable part of the competition?

Vatsal Bhakar: The most memorable part of the competition was when they calculated our points wrong and we had to ask them over and over to recalculate our points.   

Vedanga Pathare: The most memorable part of the competition was during the final robot run when the mat was not placed correctly and messed up one mission. We asked the head judge and they fixed the mat and gave us an extra chance to run only the mission which was affected. When we ran the mission it worked with perfection and we ended up winning overall.

Shrushti Gandas: When we won!

NCSG: What comes next for the team?

Nayva Alva: The next thing for the team is the North Carolina State Championships for FIRST LEGO League.

Vatsal Bhakar: Right now we are preparing for State [Championships] very vigorously. With good luck and great preparation, maybe even Nationals.

NCSG: Do all the team members plan to go to college and, if so, do you have any ideas about what you would like to study, like engineering, science, business, etc.? 

Vedanga Pathare: All our team members plan to go to college. A couple would like to study engineering and the others want to study mathematics.

Shrushti Gandas: I plan to study computer science.

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