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Gosforth Junior High Academy take on local schools in regional coding and robotics competition

Gosforth Junior High Academy are competing in the regional round of the First Lego League Hydro Dynamics challenge, a coding and robotics competition. Transcendit copywriter Rebecca Harrison went along to meet the kids taking part, and find out more about the competition.

After the final bell rings on a Thursday afternoon, the majority of Gosforth Junior High Academy swarm the halls and head outside, but the selected few are racing to the IT room. The First Lego League Hydro Dynamics challenge is only a week away, and the classroom is absolutely brimming with enthusiasm. I'm immediately given a whirlwind tour by Year 6 student Mark, who explains everything from the 3D printed sink to the Lego aqueduct on the floor in great detail - whilst everyone begs him to be careful around the Lego mug.

Mark explains that the robot has to move around this Lego map, where structures resembling water-related items are placed; the aqueduct that needs pushing together is one, but there's also a flower that needs to be watered, and a toilet that needs to be flushed - amongst other things. The robot has to 'complete' a certain task by pushing, pulling or pressing one of the lego structures, and then return to the 'base' - a corner of the map to gain points. 

'So every Lego structure is one challenge, and is worth points,' says Mark. 'You have to be careful to get it just right. For example, if the robot pushes something too hard, it'll probably break. That has happened a few times, that's why they're all saying to be careful. You'll hear about the teacup incident.'

The team have to program their robot to complete as many of these tasks as possible, and then on the day of the competition the robot runs all the code they've written. The more tasks it completes successfully, the more points they win. 'See the toilet over there?' says Thomas, as he points it out to me. 'I'm setting the robot off, and it's got to flush it.' We watch the robot head toward the Lego toilet, but it misses it. 'It keeps turning too far,' he says. 'It needs work.'

'The competition is Hydro Dynamics, so every part of the challenge is to do with water and how we use it,' says Peter Johnson, IT teacher at Gosforth Junior High Academy and their coach for the project. 'There's the robot part, where they have to complete water-related tasks. They also have to come up with a innovative solution for saving water, and then present a PowerPoint on it. And then the judges will ask them questions.'

Intrigued by this, I get chatting to Ed, who walks me through their water saving solution. 'We've made a tap that powers itself. When you put your hands underneath the sensor, you activate the tap. The waste water then goes down the pipe, and inside the pipe there's a little water wheel. That water wheel generates energy, which powers the tap. And after you've moved your hands away, our tap only runs for 10 seconds more. Normal sensor taps carry on running for 40 seconds, which wastes a lot of water.'

The whole team's excitement about this is so contagious that I feel ready to order fifty of these taps myself. I ask some of them how the team came together. 'We all got selected by Mr. Johnson. A lot of Year 8s were asked if they wanted to do it, but they didn't fancy it.' This remark is immediately met by a chorus of, 'Who wouldn't want to do this?!' 

When I ask how they're all feeling about the competition, everyone comes back with some version of 'brilliant'. 'I'm not nervous because it's not something you have to win,' says Chiara. 'It's a fun thing to do and enjoy anyway. If we got fourth place we'd all be upset, but it's fun to keep improving and practising.'

I have a look at the programming software the team are using; as someone who couldn't code their way out of a wet paper bag, I say that it looks incredibly confusing. 'No,  it's not,' says Arav. 'This generates music, this writes text on the robot, this is a timer.' He moves the cursor to various numbers and dials on the screen.

I confess that I'm a writer, not a programmer, and Arav takes me through it a little more slowly. 'You create the sequence of moves for the robot to do, then plug the robot in and it downloads the code. So motors B and C make the robot move straight. You have to set the degrees for how far you want the robot to turn.' I smile and nod along, but I'm more confused than ever. 'See, this is set to 3. I think it needs 2.6.' I get the sense that I'm slowing him down, so I abandon any hopes of understanding it and have a wander around instead.

Lily is working at a computer in the corner, waiting for her turn with the robot so she can test out her code. 'It's for the fire truck task,' she explains. 'So I've got to get the robot from the base, down to the bottom of the map, round where the teacup is, round the house, get behind the fire truck and then hit the lever to put the fire out. And then get the robot back to the base to get the points.' I ask her if she'll be able to do it all in the two and half minute time limit. 'It doesn't take that long really,' says Lily. 'Would she like to go into programming?' I ask, but she says she sees it more as a hobby, 'I want to be a swimmer. So this is just for fun.'

I ask Lily how the team have been working together. Although there's a couple of long time friendships here, for the most part the team haven't mixed before. 'It's been fun working with everyone,' says Lily. 'Everyone gets on at Mark because he broke some of the Lego in the first couple of weeks, but everyone's broken something at some point.' I start watching where I step more carefully.

Peter says he's really pleased with how the team have taken to the challenge, 'When I first looked at this stuff, I realised how hard some of it is. But they're so enthusiastic - I mean, you've seen them. I'm really looking forward to the competition, it should be a great experience. I just want them to get a few points, but if they have a good day that's the most important thing.'

'They come every week, some of them even come in on their lunchtimes to work on it. They've put a lot of time and effort into this. If they have fun on the day, then it's all been worth it'

Gosforth Junior High Academy came joint second place in the competition, winning best hydrodynamics research project and presentation for their self-powered tap design, and are now the proud owners of a Lego trophy!

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