NEWS | April 16, 2012

NRL Oceanographer Coaches Junior High Robotics Team

By Shannon Breland

Naval Research Laboratory Stennis oceanographer Clark Rowley recently spent 80 hours over 10 weeks playing with LEGO blocks, teaching junior high students how to build robots.

Rowley has been coaching the Boyet Junior High School's FIRST Lego League (FLL) team since 2009. FLL is a robotics-focused, extra-curricular program for middle school students. During the 10-week season, junior high teams build LEGO-based robots and develop research projects for a chance to compete in the FLL regional competitions.

It's fun to watch the kids go from just a box of LEGO parts and create a really capable robot with some very clever engineering, Rowley said. The kids do the research. They build the robots. They do the work. That is the heart of FIRST LEGO League.

With the help of teachers and an assistant coach, Rowley prepared the 10 students for the 2011 FIRST LEGO League Louisiana Regional Competition in December. Food contamination was the theme for this year's competition, so Rowley's team found an article about a rodent infestation in a Peruvian school cafeteria. The students conducted research and spoke with experts on rats, rat control, and autonomous robots, and proposed a system of communicating robots to perform rodent control in food storage warehouses. As part of the project, they demonstrated a system of two LEGO robots communicating over Bluetooth.

Rowley and his team's hard work and dedication paid off again at this year's competition. Boyet won a Core Award for Mechanical Design and placed second out of 57 teams in the Robot Performance division. Rowley's team has also been successful in the past, winning 2nd overall in 2010 and the Rookie Award in 2009. Aside from being successful in the competition, Rowley believes that FLL is an important stepping-stone for young students into the world of STEM.

I think it's a great introduction for the kids into the engineering process, said Rowley. Brain storming ideas, building prototypes, finding out what doesn't work and coming back fixing it and finding their own solutions.

Rowley received his Ph.D. in oceanography from the University of Rhode Island in 1996 and began his NRL career in 2001. Throughout the years Rowley's work has been praised numerous times, and in 2010 he received a Department of the Navy Meritorious Civilian Service Medal. However, Rowley says that one of the most fulfilling parts of his career has been working with FLL.

FLL is so rewarding, Rowley said. The kids are amazing and really commit to the project. The entire season is a blast. I encourage all scientists to take advantage of opportunities like FLL.