Bleeker the rechargeable dog

In the spirit of National Robotics Week, the Rivard Report takes a moment to recognize and celebrate a group of local inventors. These bright minds designed a cane that stands up on its own, built a robot that can complete household tasks, and were recently selected from hundreds of other groups across the world as semifinalists in a competition that could land them on the front porch of the United States Patent and Trademark Office. They are innovative, creative, and hardworking. And only in the seventh grade.

For the past two years, a team of San Antonio students called the Randomists has competed in the FIRST Lego League (FLL) tournament, one of four FIRST programs.


FIRST, an acronym for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,” is an international non-profit public charity headquartered in Manchester, NH. The organization strives to spark an interest in science and technology in young students, inspiring them to become leaders in the field and fostering “well-rounded life capabilities, including self-confidence, communication, and leadership.” More than 20,000 teams from more than 60 countries take part in the FLL competition, building and programming autonomous robots using LEGO MINDSTORMS technology.

The Randomists includes seventh-grade students from the Keystone School and Montessori School of San Antonio: Nia Clements, Evan Meade, Max Ulmer, Luke Vilagi, and Madelyne Wilson. Over Easter weekend, the team competed in the Alamo Regional Championship and took home the first place Champion’s Award. Eighty FLL teams now compete in the South Texas region, up from just 14 in 2009.

BioMedSA president Ann Stevens with the Randomists
BioMedSA president Ann Stevens with the Randomists.
(Photo courtesy of BioMedSA)

Adopting a different theme each year, this competition season focused on improving the lives of senior citizens. Teams identified and researched a challenge associated with aging (such as getting around, keeping in touch, or staying fit), suggested a way to confront the challenge and thus improve the quality of life for affected seniors, and then shared their findings and solutions with others. They also programmed and built an autonomous LEGO robot, which completed an obstacle course filled with missions like fixing a chair, bowling, lifting a weight, and selecting the correct medicine.

The Randomists partnered with Morningside Ministries to identify and explore a common problem that seniors face. They chose to find a meaningful solution to issues with mobility and fall-related injury avoidance, inventing the “Standalone Cane.” By combining two existing technologies, the students created a device that looks and feels like a typical cane but can remain upright on its own, allowing users to more easily and safely complete two-handed tasks.

Beyond winning the Champion’s Award at the Alamo Regional Convention this year, the Randomists entered their Standalone Cane into a separate but related competition: the FLL Global Innovation Award. Of the approximately 500 inventions submitted by FLL teams, the Standalone Cane was selected as a semifinalist and one of the ten “most promising innovations,” according to a news release from BioMedSA, the Randomists’ sponsor.

FIRST LEGO League Competition
FIRST LEGO League Competition.
(Photo courtesy of FIRST)

Andrew Schuetze, director of the Texas Institute for Educational Robotics at Northwest Vista College and local FIRST operational partner, organized and ran all the tournaments that the Randomists competed in this year.

“Not every team decides to enter their research into (the Global Innovation Award contest). Just by entering you’re putting yourself into an elite class,” he explained. Noting the hundreds of contest entries, he continued: “To be one of the ten chosen on merit and one of a total of twenty semifinalists is quite impressive.”

Ten of the semifinalist teams were selected by popular vote through social media, while the Randomists and nine other teams were selected based on merit. FLL is still evaluating entries, but the three finalists chosen by the end of this month will attend an awards ceremony at the US Patent and Trademark Office in Virginia this summer.

BioMedSA, a non-profit organization that seeks to promote the growth of the healthcare and biomedical industries in San Antonio, not only sponsors the Randomists, but played an instrumental role in catalyzing the team’s formation. Ann Stevens, president of BioMedSA, attends all of the team’s competitions, actively cheering them on, “T-shirt and all!”

The organization also arranged for the Randomists to participate in a special demonstration match for the Academy of Medicine, Engineering, and Science of Texas (an organization composed of Nobel Laureates and National Academies members in Texas), “to show how young people are building and programming robots to solve real-world health challenges.”

BioMedSA president Ann Stevens, BioMedSA chair Ken Trevett, and 2012 Palmaz Award recipient Dr. Larry Miller with four members of  the Randomists team at the 2012 Palmaz Awards dinner. (Photo courtesy of BioMedSA)
BioMedSA President Ann Stevens, BioMedSA Chair Ken Trevett, and 2012 Palmaz Award recipient Dr. Larry Miller with four members of the Randomists team at the 2012 Palmaz Awards dinner.
(Photo courtesy of BioMedSA)

Each year, BioMedSA honors an individual who has made a significant impact on the biosciences with the Palmaz Award. In 2009, inventor and founder of FIRST Dean Kamen received the honor, piquing the interest of the parents of one future Randomist present in the audience.

“It all started that night when (ViroXis) CEO Ian Clements and his wife Diane heard Dean’s inspiring remarks on the importance of FIRST in getting young people enthused about science and technology,” said Stevens. “They saw it as a way for their then 9-year-old daughter, Nia, and her friends to get actively involved in technology and problem solving.”

Diane Clements, who, with Brian Wilson, coaches the Randomists, explained some of the many the ways that involvement with FIRST has benefited the team members: “By allowing the children to do the work and make all the decisions associated with the annual FLL challenge – from robot design, building, programming, and project development and presentations – they have become problem solvers and critical thinkers.”

The Randomists' robot.  (Photo courtesy of Diane Clements)
The Randomists’ robot.
(Photo courtesy of Diane Clements)

Lisa Lewis, Vice President of Corporate Communications & Media Relations for CPS Energy, serves as advisory board member for the Alamo Chapter of FIRST. CPS and other, mostly tech-oriented companies are FIRST sponsors and advisory board members, financially supporting area teams. Staff members serve as coaches, mentors, and volunteers for tournaments and events. Lewis joked that companies like CPS, Rackspace, Toyota and Boeing, “work together today to create employees to fight over ten years from now.”

The two principal tenets of FIRST are “Gracious Professionalism” and “Coopertition.” Gracious Professionalism, a term coined by FIRST National Advisor Dr. Woodie Flowers, the Pappalardo Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, emphasizes mutual respect and encourages top quality work. Gracious Professionalism also teaches that competition and mutual gain work hand in hand to produce high caliber results and a meaningful, satisfying life. FIRST defines Coopetition as “unqualified kindness and respect in the face of fierce competition,” stressing that teams can cooperate with each other while competing, and that teammates learn from and teach each other.

“It is knowledge and learning rather than competitions and winning that drives the team,” said Clements. “FLL is much more than the robotic game. The robotic game was the hook to stimulate the initial interest, but it is combining the engineering with solving real-world problems and inventing, while embracing FLL Core Values, that drive them now.”

The Randomists' robot.  (Photo courtesy of Diane Clements)
The Randomists’ robot.
(Photo courtesy of Diane Clements)

Miriam Sitz works for Accion Texas Inc., the nation’s largest non-profit microlender. A graduate of Trinity University, she blogs on Miriam210.com and sells handmade goods on TinderboxGoods.com. Follow her on Twitter at @miriamsitz. [Click here for more stories from Miriam Sitz on the Rivard Report.]

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The Palmaz Award: Celebrating Biomedical Innovation in the Alamo City

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Miriam Sitz

Miriam Sitz writes about urbanism, architecture, design, and more. Follow her on Twitter at @MiriamSitz