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Autonomous robots carry team to state victory

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A youth robotics team coached at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette is headed to a national competition after its performance in a statewide contest Saturday.

Team Phoenix, composed of six Acadiana students ages 9 to 14, earned the Champion Award in the Louisiana Championship Tournament held in New Orleans. FIRST LEGO League conducted the contest; 60 teams competed.

Team Phoenix is one of only two Louisiana teams that will advance to national invitationals.

“Teams program an autonomous robot to score points on a thematic playing surface, create an innovative solution to a problem and present their innovation to a panel of judges,” said Dr. Doug Williams, a UL Lafayette professor of education who led Team Phoenix. He’s also director of the University’s Center for Innovative Learning and Assessment Technologies.

Team Phoenix began training at CILAT in September to prepare for the state tournament. Its members worked for two hours, twice a week, on programming, mechanical design and a research project.

Williams said the Champion Award is the most prestigious recognition. It’s presented to the team that is exceptional in all judging areas – core values, robot game performance and research – and embodies the spirit of FIRST LEGO League.

“FLL team members learn science and technology skills at the same time as valuable employment and life skills. Participants also learn that friendly competition and mutual gain are not separate goals and that helping one another is the foundation of teamwork.”

During the Louisiana Championship event, one Team Phoenix match turned into a disaster. “Their robot had a total mechanical and software failure. Yet, they handled the failure with grace,” Williams said.

Team Phoenix gets to choose whether it will compete in the North American Open Championship in LegoLand, Calif., or in the Razorback Open Invitational in Arkansas.

Five of its members are home schooled: Miguel Pagan, 9; Francisco Pagan, 14; Joseph Williams, 9; Aaron Williams, 12; and Grant Thomas, 14. Caleb Williams, 14, attends John Paul the Great Academy in Lafayette.

Williams said Team Phoenix has hosted several activities to help other robotics teams get started. Several new teams were formed at area schools, with its assistance, including Episcopal School of Acadiana, Cathedral-Carmel School and Our Lady of Fatima School.

The team also conducted hands-on robotics activities at the University’s SMART (Science Meets Art) Festival in October and at the Lafayette Science Museum during the Nov. 8 Art Walk in downtown Lafayette.

First Lego League is an alliance between FIRST and the LEGO Group. FIRST is a nonprofit group established to interest young people in science and technology; LEGO manufactures toys.