Nantahala Robotics Club prepares for ‘Into Orbit’ LEGO -based STEM challenge

Nantahala Robotics Club prepares for ‘Into Orbit’ LEGO -based STEM challenge


 Carolyn L. Higgins – Contributing Writer

Twelve students in the Nantahala Robo Hawks, the K-12 school’s robotics club, are participating in activities in line with the school’s mission statement: “Nantahala School will challenge all students to achieve their academic potential and be successful in the 21st Century.” Ranging in age from 9 to 13, these boys and girls have also been inspired by a videotaped message from the International Space Station (ISS) encouraging them to participate in the FIRST (For Inspiration & Recognition of Science & Technology) LEGO League national competition along with thousands of other students worldwide. 

The League wants to see kids applying STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) concepts as they present their solutions with a “dash of creativity” to the judges, and a “huge dose of fun” with their team mates. They must also practice the Core Values of discovery, teamwork and good sportsmanship.

The competition allows teams in grades four through eight to compete with 10 members, coached by at least two adults. The students research a real-world problem of their choosing such as food safety, recycling, or an energy-related matter. They build, design and program a robot using LEGO Mindstorms, specifications provided by the League, and compete on a mat situated on a table for the playing field. Contestants are judged on the Robot Game, Core Values, and the Project.

“As a part of the program when you register for the season, the League will send you the big mat that has the layout of the course and instructions and pieces for building the obstacles and the components of the course,” explained Nantahala Robotics Coach, Shannon West. “And as far as the robot goes, you are free to use any piece you have access to along with the motors that come with the little CPU brick.”

From basic LEGOS to a leap in space

“This year it is about space and things astronauts might need while they are doing missions and when they are on the space station,” said West.  “The theme is ‘Into Orbit’ and is also about things they might need to survive or be better able to live.”

Overseeing her afterschool Robotics Club, West smiles as she describes the sight as “organized chaos.”

It may bring back memories to some parents of their children’s excitement at making some pretty head-scratching, crazy looking creations with LEGOs. The challenge then was for the parent to answer the youngster’s quiz to name it. Even young kids were adamant about their creation, its workings and ability to save the world. 

Actually kids working with LEGOS just might do that. Albert Einstein said “Logic will take you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” While not quite there, students this year have the opportunity to make it to the ISS to solve real world (or out-of-this world) problems – or at least their robotics creations do.  

Students who want to learn about robotics get hands-on experience and develop new skills, answer the call by filling out an application and committing to the rules. They generally meet after school, moderated by a teacher or administrator who acts as a coach. Experts from the community may also be involved as mentors.  Innovation, teamwork and a competitive spirit keep the students energized in the weeks building up to the competition. Robotics competitions are like sporting events, drawing large crowds of parents, students, administrators and others who come to see which robot will outdo the others performing the chosen task. 

A simplified description of robotics

While not as simple as building basic Lego constructions – buildings and vehicles – robotics is not too advanced for fourth grade students and up. At first students tinker, then they begin to learn about mechanical structure, power, motors, gears, and sensors. Much subtle learning begins to take place as they grasp engineering and math concepts, including physics, design and environmental science. 

The LEGO education series is based off EV3, the third generation control center that powers the robot. Students become involved quickly, working with the intelligent center known as the brick, motors, sensors and computer software to perform various functions. They control the robot by computer, remote control, or other interfaces. In addition to engineering skills, students develop critical thinking, presentation skills and team building as they work together to solve problems. Using different LEGO pieces from the toolkit enhances the fun and creativity while building the robot.

“The core of the robot is this little computerized brick that has the computer CPU component that will store the programming that they do and that will interface with the motors and the sensors,” said West. “But, the body of the robot and all of the attachments and all of the levers and arms that will be used to navigate and manipulate the course are built from LEGOs.”

EV is just the name of the robot accompanied by the model number of the robot. West says unfortunately another team in Macon County decided they did not want to organize this year due to loss of membership and participation. They gifted their robot and all of the pieces since Nantahala is still going strong. With two robots, it is a great opportunity to enhance programming activities and alleviates some prior limitations. 

“One of the problems is even though we only had four students last year, they all had a program they worked on that they wanted to try out with only one robot,” said West. “We would have to unplug it and download one program; and let them try it, and unplug it and let them download another one. With two, I can have them testing out their programs constantly. However, I hate that we lost a team within our county league.”

 “My group has grown from 4 to 5 last year to 12 this year. For the teams, you can only have 10, so I have to form a club instead and whoever participates most and contributes most directly will actually get to be on the competition team. But as a part of the club, they will all be involved.” If the initial enthusiasm is any indication of continued participation, it may be a hard decision to choose the team further down the road.

Students share their


Kellen West, using LEGOS since he was a toddler and in his second year in the club, explains the basics.

“So I’ve got this little motor on here and it will run things. And I’ve connected a rubber band and put it here, so it should, in theory, turn the wheel. But it’s not exactly working, but I’ll keep trying to make it move by using the rubber band to connect it to the little rod that was sticking out of the motor and connecting it to the wheel so it can turn.” 

In a burst of agreement, one kid yelled from the back, “and he’s really good at them [LEGOs].”

Adhering to the preset rules and regulations provided by FIRST LEGO, Kellen still has lots of room for creativity and trial and error. “I just like . . .  jam things together where it would hold, then I use the little black cord [cable] that is connected between the EV and the computer tower.”

Similar to Kellen, Henry Carroll is in his second year and likes being part of a team. Matteo Garate and Matthew Pendergrass are the newest members with less than a week’s experience. Both joined because of close friends and an interest in LEGO sets. 

“I’ve been in about three days,” said Pendergrass. “I’ll stay because I have a guaranteed ride home (his friend), and it’s fun and entertaining.”

Curtis Douthit shares: “What drew me to robotics is I love working together with people; and my cousin she was doing it, and I love playing with 


Landon Clark and Chase McMahan were working together to outfit their robot with wheels. “We’re trying to get the wheels on our robot, but we’re kinda struggling,” said Clark, just in the program two weeks. “When we get the wheels on the robot, we’re going to try to program it. Mostly you start out with this brick that has no parts on it. Its name is EV. Then we go to the computer to program it. We need something for this wheel to roll.” 

McMahan chimed in: “I’m trying to build the rubber band wheel to help it roll, because we can’t seem to get it to roll without rubber banded wheels and stuff. I’m back because I got interested in it again and I was like, ‘Oh, I can build some more robotics’ and it worked out pretty well.”

  Clark began using LEGOs at a younger age, and gestures about three feet high to depict the height of a four-story motel he once constructed. He said the benefit of robotics is it keeps their minds going – problem solving and having fun. 

“So what started me interested in the LEGOs is a lot of my cousins are here. My main cousin Tucker really got me interested and helps me build the most.”  

Evan West is one of the youngest at age nine, but he was very determined. 

“I’m looking in the basket so that I can put a wheel on. Wheels are important so you just keep looking for your part . . . I just like doing LEGOs.” 

Carly Douthit and Zoey Passmore were working on the table with the competition mat supplied by the League, performing exercises. “This is the food processor,” said Douthit. “The robot comes and pushes and operates the food processor.” 

Douthit explained why she chose the food processor project.

 “I help my dad a lot at the house and build a bunch of stuff, so I thought this would be really fun. I’ve got many building skills, because I have helped my uncle build cabinets and lots of stuff.”

The (almost) 13 year-old and the 11-year old girls are a good pairing and say they keep each other motivated. Passmore also likes to build based on family history.

 “I build stuff around the house, and I know how to weld. And sometimes I go to work with my Dad, and I help him roof.” 

Helen Ward knows the value of gaining good skills for the future. 

“I like building LEGOs, and I like working together. When you go to work later in life, you’ve got to know how to work together. Doing this is very fun, because I love LEGOs and everything and building.”  

Coach West’s commitment

West is the Science teacher at Nantahala and teaches classes for grades 7 through 12 and enjoys the diversity of the curriculum and robotics.   

   “[In robotics] they are at different levels and that’s really good because the whole idea of this program is it’s all student-centered. I’m there in a facilitator role completely and to clarify the rules. I’m not allowed to do any of the work myself. I’m not allowed to generate any of the ideas, and so having the more experienced students teaching the younger ones as they go is great as far as team-building. And they have to really understand something to be able to teach it, so it really strengthens the other kids’ skills.”

This is her third year working robotics as a part of the SMART (Smoky Mountain Area Robotics Team) League. She has been involved in various capacities since 2012 working through grants and also with assistance from Southwestern Community College. West sees the growth and thinks students develop phenomenal skills that will help as they get into high school and on into the work world.  

  “I just love the confidence that the kids achieve, because even students that their strong point may not be traditional academics – with the paper tests and the writing assignments, they excel at this sort of thing because it is very hands-on and it is critical thinking, problem-solving skills. And, I love it when I hear this girl who might not be a straight A students but she’s like, “Oh, wait, I know how to do that, I’ll come help you,’ and it’s tremendous seeing the natural, flowing leadership process.” 

How the community at large can help

Research and presentation skills are crucial for the competition. The more they share the idea with the community at large, at civic groups or community clubs, and actually try to implement whatever the solution to their problem is, the higher they are scored in the competition. It really makes the students start thinking about problems in the community that they actually have the potential to solve. 

Mentors are in short supply because it is difficult for West to find mentors willing to come to Nantahala. She said companies like Drake Software and Tektone have been very supportive, but they could use more. The use of robotics in the work place is increasing, but they need people to program. It is just a way to make the workplace more efficient and more productive, and students must be ready whether or not they choose a science discipline. STEM projects interspersed with intelligent technology help them become better decision-makers, leaders, and problem-solvers.