By Wade Coggeshall
AVON — The Invisionaries isn't your average school-age team.
They compete in the First Lego League in a robotics program designed to get students on the elementary and junior high levels excited about science and technology.
The Invisionaries are coached by Herb Denny. He found out about the FLL through a tournament last year and started a team at the encouragement of fellow parents.
For a team competing in its first season, the Invisionaries are doing quite well. They placed first for project presentation in the Indy South Regional Qualifying Tournament Nov. 17 at Center Grove Middle School North. That's where they also finished second in the robotics game portion. Both qualified the Invisionaries for the Indiana Championship Tournament this Saturday in Fort Wayne, where they'll compete against the state's top 50 teams.
"It was impressive for it being our first year," said Denny's son Will, who is a member of the Invisionaries.
Each competition includes a robotics challenge and a research and development project based on a specific topic.
With the robotics portion, each team gets a Lego set containing more than a thousand parts, which they're responsible for assembling and programming. For now, the Invisionaries are working with a basic model.
"We saw robots at the competition that lay flat or went upside down," said Garrett Fehrman, the team's oldest member. "We saw a lot of weird things."
The robot must navigate a series of modules set up on a big table. There are three rounds of scoring. This season the obstacles are based on the theme "Senior Solutions." They represent various challenges faced by elderly citizens, including balance, strength, and reach. Each round only lasts two and a half minutes.
"To get a lot of points in that amount of time is a challenge," Denny said. "You have to think outside the box to find solutions for some of these."
Fortunately, most of the members of the Invisionaries are already versed in such technology. Fehrman, who attended a programming summer camp, can't really explain why he's into this so much.
"It fascinates me how you can make robots do anything at all," said Fehrman, who wants to be an engineer.
Cooper Zuranski, on the other hand, can pinpoint what got him interested in technology.
"I probably wouldn't be such a tech geek if my grandpa hadn't given my mom an old Windows 2000 computer when I was 3 or 4," he said. "I learned a lot about computers just from using that. I wish I could get my brother to start playing all those old PC games I have."
Beyond advancing their interest in that, competing in the FLL has also taught them the value of teamwork.
"I know how to do things, but I have to let others figure it out too," Zuranski said.
Denny says they've coalesced over the course of their weekly practices and tournament experience.
"They're coming up with ideas quicker," he said. "The brainstorming sessions are much more productive now than they used to be."
The research and development aspect includes developing a solution to a problem related to the challenge topic. In the case of Senior Solutions, Invisionaries member Mitchell West came up with Grip Agains, gloves made of the material often used to open jars in the kitchen. West cut them in the shape of hands and added Velcro straps.
"Everyone liked them, so we kept the idea," said West, who demonstrated them in a skit at the Hendricks County Senior Center.
With 125,000 children on 12,500 teams in the United States and Canada, the FLL has grown by double percentage points in the last year. Denny said he hopes to see more area teams organize.
"These guys have embraced (the core values of this program)," he said of the Invisionaries. "It's worked well for them."
For more information on the FLL or its partner FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), call (603) 666-3906 or visit the website at usfirst.org.
The Invisionaries are also seeking sponsorships to help defray costs. For more information, email to firstname.lastname@example.org.