Local First Lego League team lands spot at international tournament
The Lucky Bananas FLL team’s research project could help predict future water contaminations.
South Jersey students have conceived a water contamination awareness system that can be practiced in the palm of your hands.
The Lucky Bananas, a local First Lego League team comprised of fifth to eighth graders from Voorhees, Cherry Hill, Mt. Laurel and Marlton, recently won the Southern New Jersey FLL Regional Championship at Rowan University. The spectrum of intelligence, teamwork and technology demonstrated by the Bananas has led to their inaugural FIRST Championship in Detroit, scheduled for April 25 to 28. The four-day festivities draw the top FLL teams from across the globe.
At Rowan, the team, which has competed at the regional level since its conception in fall 2014, won best overall and was tied for the highest robot score, clinching 230 points.
The Bananas, whose name derives from chemical elements Lutetium (Lu), Carbon © , Potassium (K) and Yttrium (Y), are the first team representing the FLL South Jersey Region, which was established two years ago, at the world event.
“It’s been a great experience for us, and just making it to this point is enough for us,” said team member Mia Reischer of Voorhees. “But, this year, we had really good projects. We have a working robot. We got really excited, because we actually had a chance this year, and we did it. We made it through.”
The series of FLL competitions, which feature three main elements of robotics, core values and research, focuses on a new theme each season. This year’s theme is hydrodynamics, encouraging teams to engineer and execute a solution related to the water cycle.
The Lucky Bananas, which includes six members, one mentor and two coaches, Matthew Reischer of Voorhees and Mercy Gohil of Marlton, began brainstorming ideas back in August. After considering each other’s thoughts, the team derived inspiration from epidemiologist John Snow who, amid a deadly cholera outbreak in 19-century London, plotted water-borne fatalities on a map.
“(Snow) was the first person to graph data on a map,” said team member Samuel Friedman of Cherry Hill. “So, we tried to modernize this idea and produce this into a map, so more people could use it.”
Through visits to local plants such as the Fairmount Water Works and conversations with researchers from companies such as PortaScience, the team bridged traditional water-strip testing with practical technology, inventing a web app, called OpenWater, that allows users to input their addresses and various results from water tests, including lead, iron and fluoride, which then displays the data on respective Google maps — one for each of the 13 tests.
A red pinpoint indicates water is unsafe to consume, while green indicates the water is drinkable.
“We thought it would help in today’s society. Like in Flint, Mich., they didn’t know the root of the problem until later,” said team member Aryan Pradhan of Voorhees. “But, now, if we could map it and find clusters of bad water, we thought this could be a useful solution.”
Ideally, this system will enable future contamination predictions.
The app will soon be presented in Detroit — just about an hour away from the ground zero water crisis in Flint. The team members say they still have a little tweaking to do before presenting the project on the international level.
Yet, the idea has already greatly transformed through three competitions since the fall.
Along with making technical changes, like users simply plugging in their address instead of latitude and longitude locations, the team shifted its focus from a phone app to a web app, which accommodates more demographics.
“We didn’t want to have a selection bias to say only people with phones could use it,” Pradhan said.
The Lucky Bananas say all decisions, like this one, are made through a democratic republic system — a cornerstone aspect of their core values presentation, which was also evaluated by a panel of judges.
The team finds focus in listening to each other’s ideas, balancing the work upon members’ strengths, brainstorming solutions and even guiding other FLL groups.
“This is the most important part of our project,” said team member Arianna Reischer of Voorhees. “If we’re going to take one thing out of our entire (FFL) experience, it’s these. Robots are really, really cool, and we learn a ton from that. But, core values are the most important.”
The third installment entailed the robot games, in which teams are judged on mechanical design, programming, strategy and innovation and robot performance.
Nearly 20,000 FLL teams from around the world must configure Lego robotic missions using the same map. Teams have nearly two minutes and 30 seconds to complete as many missions as possible within a tiny Lego town.
Since the missions echo the themes of the research project, this year’s objectives featured flushing toilets and delivering buckets to water wells amid the colorful figurines portraying a cityscape.
The robot is completely autonomous, meaning the team pre-programs the missions prior to the competitions using color sensors, motors and other engineering equipment.
However, approaching the world event, the team is revamping the majority of its missions, rehearsing the robot’s route up to three times a week leading up to the mid-April competition.
“At international level, the competition is much stiffer, because for international teams their age groups are higher,” Gohil said. “So, they have to up their games. They completely changed their strategy.”
“It’s intimidating, but we appreciate the challenge,” Pradhan added.
No matter the results, the team says it looks forward to learning from fellow FLL members from around the globe.
Above everything else, the international event represents the evolution of the Lucky Bananas, whose local South Jersey solutions will soon be witnessed by the world.
“Watching the team dynamic change and grow between all of us — we kind of have become a family,” said team mentor Gianna Gagliardi of Mt. Laurel. “And so, over these four years, all of the hard work that they’ve put in and that Matt and Mercy have put in, I’m just so proud. I couldn’t have wished for a better experience or a better team.”
If you’d like to help sponsor the team’s $8,000 travel costs to Detroit, visit www.gofundme.com/lucky-bananas-road-to-worlds.
To download the web app, visit http:/bit.ly/OpenWaterFLL.