Winning robot teams

Celebrating their first and second place finishes at the FIRST LEGO League state tournament are Height Differential (back row) and Ponytail Posse. Pictured are Akash D’Souza (back left), Grant Altenhofen, John Helgeson, Katie Riedel, Grace Whiting, Charlie Whiting, Nick Riedel, Sabriyah Taher (front left), Meghan Froehle, Nancy Koshy, Rose Lam, Amy Helgeson and Emily Elmquist.

SHOREVIEW — The members of Height Differential learned some valuable lessons last year, and this year, they capitalized on them.

The Shoreview team of seven students from Chippewa Middle School and Mounds View High School earned second place at the FIRST LEGO League’s Minnesota state robotics tournament in 2013, enough to earn them a trip to the North American Open competition in Carlsbad, Calif. Their project for the competition, a caller ID system to help seniors with memory loss, was intriguing enough that the students held talks with phone companies and tried to patent the invention.

Unfortunately, the team shared the idea with so many people prior to filing paperwork that obtaining a patent was all but impossible. They were pleased with their second-place finish, but team coach Jack Riedel said that the runner-up status also made the team hungry for the top spot.

“The funny thing about coming in second last year is it left them motivated to improve, but it didn’t leave them much room,” he said.

This year, the team’s hard work paid off. They won the state tournament, earning them a trip to Toronto to participate in the FLL international tournament on June 4. They also kept their project for this year’s FLL theme, Nature’s Fury, under wraps until the patent paperwork was already underway.

Even better, Height Differential got to celebrate its success with a fellow team of Shoreview and Chippewa students: Ponytail Posse, which took second place and will be headed to Carlsbad on May 16.

“When we were a new rookie team, [coach] Norton Lam and the Ponytail Posse kind of helped us get started,” said Riedel.

FIRST LEGO League is a science-promoting robotics group that encourages students ages 9 through 16 to create a robot out of LEGO materials (replacing the LEGO Mindstorms controller this year was the new EV3 controller, leading Height Differential to dub its robot StEV3, or “Stevie three”). Come tournament time, teams must put their robots through a course to perform certain tasks, and they must present a research project that addresses the year’s theme.

The 2013-2014 theme, Nature’s Fury, asked students to find new solutions for preparing for, surviving or recovering from natural disasters. Ponytail Posse focused on the recovery aspect, interviewing members of the Red Cross to find out how the agency documents flood damage. The team, which is made up of all girls, was surprised to learn that the Red Cross still takes damage information on a paper form.

“It takes a long time [to fill out], and someone has to type it out [afterwards],” said Nancy Koshy.

The team decided to design a tablet application to help the Red Cross compile the information faster. With the help of team sponsor Magenic, Koshe and fellow team member Sabriyah Taher programmed an iPad app that compiles all of the needed information about flood damage to a home, lets Red Cross workers know which homes they still need to visit, and sends the information back to the Red Cross wirelessly.

“The app is programmed to save half the … time,” said Amy Helgemoe, who is a twin to Height Differential’s John. The girls noted that the faster the information is filed, the quicker needy families can receive aid.

John Helgeson, whose father Barry works for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, worked with other Height Differential team members to come up with the idea to focus on flooding in the nearby Red River Valley, where his grandparents live. While his grandparents have never been forced out of their home by floodwaters, they certainly have to be prepared for the possibility.

“They have a little box with the necessities so if the river does overflow, they can grab that box and go,” John explained.

Sandbags are an important topic in flood-prone areas. Sandbags can be effective in protecting homes from flooding, but they can only be stacked so high, they’re not reusable, and they’re expensive. Height Differential set out to design a reusable tool that be used in place of sandbags. They came up with the Aikido Flood Bag, a self-erecting floodwall made of sturdy PVC rubber that uses the pressure of the flood water to erect itself and stay in place.

“[Aikido] is a martial arts term where you use the force of your opponent against the opponent,” Riedel explained.

The judges at the state tournament were impressed with the flood bag, but the team’s prowess with its robot earned it the most points. Helgeson explained that the team members take turns competing in different rounds of the course. Each course is run by a pair of students.

“One person scrolls through the program [list] and pushes the button for [the robot to perform a command], and the other person puts on the attachments,” he said.

In addition to Height Differential’s grand champion status, it also won the high score award for running the obstacle course, and it took first in the tournament’s single-elimination head-to-head obstacle course tournament.

Ponytail Posse, on the other hand, scored its points due to strong showings in the judged section of the tournament, earning first place in three categories and receiving callbacks for most. Judges praised the team’s app and its unique robot, which the girls designed to fit into multiple chassis in order to navigate specific tasks and terrain on the obstacle course.

It is the actual running of the robot that the girls are trying to improve before heading to Carlsbad. The team didn’t do as well as it had hoped on the obstacle course at the state tournament, thanks to a few imprecise programs the girls are tweaking in advance of the national competition. To test their improvements, they’re running their twin robots, Stacy and Tracy (they built two identical robots so fewer girls had to share a robot at once while making design changes), on a homemade course in coach Lam’s basement.

The girls are hopeful for success, but they’re also pleased just to be in the program. FLL has pointed them toward potential careers, improved their public speaking ability, and enabled them to get out into the community to volunteer at various FLL and school events. The team of six’s unique makeup also gives them something else to prove: girl power.

“[It’s] pretty cool because there aren’t a lot of all-girl teams,” said Rose Lam.

Both teams are raising money to fund their trips. To learn more about the teams and how to donate money, visit and

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