Max Denning

EOU Robotics tournament

The event will begin at 9 a.m. in the Huber Auditorium. The robot part of the competition, which is open to the public, will take place in the multi-story atrium of Badgley Hall on the EOU campus.

Approximately 75 students, ages 9 to 14, from elementary and middle schools all around Northeast Oregon will descend on Eastern Oregon University’s Badgley Hall on Saturday to compete in the 15th annual Eastern Oregon Robotics Tournament.

While it’s no “BattleBots,” these students are tasked with building and programming a Lego robot that can perform a number of “missions,” which are loosely related to this year’s theme of “Into Orbit” or the problems associated with space travel, on a 4-by-8-foot map.

Even though the programming and performing of missions by the robots, known as the robot game, is the most popular part of the competition, it’s only a quarter of the judged event. The participants also prepare a presentation on potential problems that could arise during space travel, they answer questions from judges about the programming and design of their robots and, lastly, they compete in a top secret team challenge prior to the competition.

Richard Croft, associate professor of computer science at EOU and executive director of the tournament, said the students learn to collaborate on unique problems.

“They learn to work together cooperatively,” Croft said. “They learn that it’s both challenging and fun to tackle technological and scientific problems.”

The importance of teamwork was echoed by Brandi Canfield, a fifth-grade teacher at Greenwood Elementary in La Grande. Canfield is in her fourth year coaching the Greenwood robotics team. She attended a workshop at EOU over the summer four years ago where they presented on Lego robotics. Canfield was intrigued and got a grant from the Oregon Department of Education to start a team.

She said one of the big takeaways the students have from being a part of the robotics team is learning how to work with each other.

“They focus on teamwork, discovery and having fun,” Canfield said. “The experience to build connections in a small group and to present (to the judges) and speak in front of an audience is pretty phenomenal.”

Canfield’s team consists of two fourth-graders and five fifth-graders. She said each year team dynamics differ, but she has been consistently impressed with the strides each group has made as a team.

“The (students learn about the) perseverance that it takes to keep working even when you hit the walls,” Canfield said, “because there are a lot of walls they hit within the programming and solving the problems. They keep going and try not to get discouraged.”

One of the students she has seen a lot of growth from this year is Lauren Leathers. Canfield said when Lauren joined the club, she was reserved and unfamiliar with the programming aspect of the robotics tourney, but as the group started meeting more, she became more confident.

“She is now almost successful with her mission, has created her own attachment, and has modified it,” Canfield said.

The Greenwood teacher noted it can be difficult for younger students to compete with teams of older and more experienced opponents, but where her team may falter in the robot game, they make up for it with their research, presentation and performance in the teamwork challenge.

“Those (other aspects) can make us more competitive with teams that have more experience,” she said. “But, yes, it is a challenge.”

One team member, fourth-grader Wyatt Murie, said he enjoys programming the robots and being on a team with his friends.

“I like that you get to use a Chromebook and the robots,” Murie said.

Overall, Croft said he hopes the competition gives students a new appreciation for science and technology.

“The big takeaway is we want the kids to learn that science is fun,” he said, noting he knows of students at EOU who took part in the competition as children and have gone on to become computer scientists.

The opening ceremony will begin around 9 a.m. in Huber Auditorium. The robot games part of the competition, which is open to the public, will take place in the multi-story atrium of Badgley Hall.

At 2 p.m. the events will conclude with a ceremony led by La Grande Mayor Steve Clements to recognize Croft’s leadership of the tournament for the past 14 years.