Middle school students test hydro dynamics at robotics competition
FIRST Lego League Qualifiers Event


Team #4103 ‘Hydrodragons’ from Halsted Middle School test their robot together before matches begin Photo courtesy of Jim Hofmann

By Liam Oakes
SPARTA— Sixteen middle school robotics teams competed in the FIRST Lego League Qualifiers Event at Sparta Middle School on Saturday, Nov. 18.
“It was a fantastic fun-filled day of positive energy which we all enjoyed,” said Jim Hofmann, coordinator of the event.
Hofmann, who is also the technology teacher at Newton’s Halsted Middle School, once again took on the challenge of running a competition, while also maintaining a FIRST Lego League team of his own. He has been involved in the FIRST Robotics program for eight years, coaching both a high school and middle school team.
FIRST Lego League is a robotics competition where students ranging from fourth to eighth grades design, build, and program robots built out of Legos to complete several missions for the game using Lego Mindstorms, Lego NXT, and Lego EV3 technology. Teams are only allotted two and a half minutes to complete as many missions as possible on the game field, which is set on a 4’ x 8’ table. Currently, there are over 32,000 teams registered across the globe.
Hofmann said that he was very pleased with the turnout of the competition this year, with over 160 people in attendance.
Not only are teams judged on their robot’s design and performance, but students are also evaluated on Core Values, which include teamwork, coopetition, and Gracious Professionalism, “a way of doing things that encourages high-quality work, emphasizes the value of others, and respects individuals and the community,” according to the FIRST website.
A group of judges was led by Michael Drelich, while the referees of the game were headed by Ed Flynn. Drelich is a project manager at Dykstra Associates PC and Flynn is a manager at the Bridgewater Home Depot and a mentor of his local Boy Scout troop.
“The kids who competed in this year’s event were awesome,” Flynn said. “They brought their creativity and passion forward and delivered amazing results. I loved the teamwork I saw demonstrated and how the children were able to represent themselves in such a mature way.”
Flynn has volunteered to be a head referee of the FIRST Lego League for two years. Referees, judges, and other assistants at the event are not paid to run the competition as they are all volunteers. The judging team was comprised of employees from several different STEM businesses in the northern New Jersey area. The scorekeeper, emcee host, event liaison, and the eight referees at the competition were students and mentors from Newton High School’s robotics team “Aperture.”
“I also really enjoyed watching my youth volunteers demonstrate their composure and character,” Flynn added. “They are amazing young adults and they give so much of their time to make the event great. It is inspiring to see this diverse group of people come together, and I imagine just how far these kids will go.”
Ethan Horn, an eighth-grade student at Lafayette Middle School, said that he had a lot of fun at the event and enjoyed the experience of meeting new people outside of his school.
Now in his third and final year participating in the program, Horn has learned through his experience that there can be an endless amount of possibilities to solving one problem.
“With the robot game, all of the teams were able to come up with different designs and different methods to solving each mission,” Horn said. “They all managed to reach to end goal of completing that mission. This also includes the project, where all of the teams came up with different solutions to the problems that they noticed with water.”
Horn also said that he hopes to continue his career with FIRST in high school, where he will have the opportunity to join one of the two high school programs that the organization offers.
Aperture also hosted another community service project at the event. Participating teams at the event had the opportunity to bring in sums of canned goods, food, and other essential items. Over 1,000 items were donated which were delivered to the Manna House food pantry in Newton.
Several awards were distributed at the event. The Project Award was awarded to Team #28805 "Green Hills School Robotics" from Green Township, Robot Design Award to Team #16610 "Nanogurus" from Morris Plains, Robot Performance Award to Team #25320 “Promethio” from Livingston, Core Values Award to Team #24137 “Ram Robotics” from Stanhope, and the Champion’s Award to Team #31773 “Hyper Circuits” from Parsippany.
The Judges’ Award, akin to an honorable mention, was awarded to Team #24781 “Six Roboteers” from Budd Lake for their “immeasurable amount of kindness to everyone and for scoring impressively as a rookie team.”
The Hyper Circuits, The Nanogurus, and The Six Roboteers will advance to the state championship in Mount Olive against over 50 other New Jersey teams at Mount Olive High School on December 9.