The sumo match was about to begin. But this wasn’t just any sumo match — the “wrestlers” were LEGO Mindstorm robots programmed by elementary school students. One team placed its entry, a gray robot with black wheels and a ramp attached to the front, in the middle of the ring. Then, the opposing team placed its robot, gray with black wheels and three LEGO walls surrounding the body, right next to it.
The judge counted down, “Three, two, one… sumo!” The robots spun around each other, trying to push each other out of the ring. The LEGOs collided with a loud clack. As one of them got leverage, the other robot tried to fight off being pushed out. The student teams watched intently, the winning team members cheering for their robot as it pushed out its opponent. Opposing team members held their heads in their hands as their robot was pushed out.
Spectators watched closely as the elementary school students pitted their robots against one another May 5 in the Matadome, at the fifth annual Rally in the Valley at California State University, Northridge. The competition for Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) students had six different tracks, with first, second and third place awarded in each.
In teams of two and three, 400 students from about 20 different elementary schools worked on their LEGO Mindstorm designs for months in preparation for the rally.
Spearheaded by CSUN professor of elementary education Susan Belgrad and professor of computer science and education Li Liu, Rally in the Valley is co-sponsored by the LAUSD and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Interim Dean Hamid Johari of the College of Engineering and Computer Science and Councilmember Bob Blumenfield were also instrumental in this year’s event.
Belgrad said Rally in the Valley “inspires upper-elementary children and their families to see a future where they are STEM achievers and contributors in a global community.”
Belgrad also thanked the “incredible educators” who served on the Rally in the Valley board as well as the “girls and boys who worked hard to get” to the event.
Aside from the sumo matches, students also competed in the Follow the Line event, where students programmed their robots to stay as close as possible to a pre-drawn line. In the Obstacle Course challenge, students programmed their LEGO robots to navigate through a preset obstacle course made of PVC pipes.
Students also competed in the NASA Space Challenge, where the teams are asked to complete seven missions within ten minutes. Missions included Activate Communication, where teams had to raise their robots’ communication dish, and Initiate Launch, where teams launched the rocket and deployed the Mars Space Station. Belgrad said that NASA’s JPL Ota Lutz invested time in training teachers to lead it.
First through fifth grade STEM educator Sergio Millan said that he was happy to bring his students to the Rally because he wants his students to see that they have a place in STEM careers.
“The Rally in the Valley is one of many models of STEM education in our region that gives an opportunity to schools in and around the San Fernando Valley,” Millan said. ” I see [this] as an educational movement of STEM/STEAM education that is paving the paths for many of our youth to attain careers in these fields.” In education communities, STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, art and math.
Nicholas Sikes, a fifth grader from Haskell STEAM Magnet, participated in all of the events and said he was most excited about the sumo match because of his robot’s design, which featured a ramp on its front to more easily push out opponent robots.
“We tried sumo with the ramp last year and it was pretty effective,” Sikes said, smiling.
Though Sikes’ robot did not place in the sumo competition, “The Destroyer,” as he called it, took home first place in the obstacle course track.
Sikes and his peers were under the guidance of lead educator Lauren Varon-Manning ’11 (Credential), ’15 (M.A., Elementary Curriculum and Instruction) and Rally newcomer Erica Lundy ’15 (M.A., Elementary Curriculum and Instruction), who teaches third grade at Haskell STEAM. Lundy won the 2016 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, started teaching at Haskell STEAM in August 2017.
Plans are already underway to connect with sponsors, schools and volunteers whose contributions to the next Rally in the Valley make it possible for CSUN to lead achievement in STEM disciplines throughout the region, Belgrad said.