Shoreview Lego League team advances to national tournament

Height Differential team members display their hardware after the Minnesota State Tournament. They won two top Champion Awards at the State Tournament and will compete in the North American Open in May. Back row from left: Grant Altenhofen, Akash D'Souza and Nick Riedel. Front row from left: Gracie Whiting, John Helgeson, Charlie Whiting and Katie Riedel. (submitted photo)

Height Differential is heading to the 2013 FIRST Lego League (FLL) North American Open in Carlsbad, Calif. in May.

The team is made up of seven students between the ages of 11 and 15. Six of the students attend Chippewa Middle School and one is a freshman at Mounds View High School.

Height Differential edged out some fierce competition this season. They earned first place at a regional tournament in November for robot design and head-to-head robot competition. On Feb. 2 they -- along with 66 other advancing teams -- competed in the state tournament at Washington Technology Magnet School in St. Paul.

The team took first place at the state tournament by winning the Innovative Solutions Award and Champion Award. These victories earned them an invitation to the North American Open, where they will represent Minnesota by competing with teams from other states, as well as Canada, Mexico and Puerto Rico.

"We all flipped out when we found out we were going to California," 11-year-old Gracie Whiting says. "It's a huge honor for us."

The FLL was created by Segway inventor Dean Kamen and was designed as a fun way to engage kids in science and math.

FLL teams first design and build small autonomous robots made from "LEGO MINDSTORMS" kits and then program them to perform various tasks using PC based software. Teams also complete a research project that incorporates FLL's core values, which they then present to judges. Both the research project and robot competition are designed around a theme that the FLL announces every year. Each FLL season teams work on projects to come up with solutions to real-world problems facing scientists.

This year's FLL theme is "Senior Solutions." Teams design robots to accomplish some tasks that would be difficult for many seniors and research solutions to some challenges they often face in daily life.

Jack Riedel is one of Height Differentials four coaches and the father of two children on the team. He says the kids on the team built a robot that is able to overcome dexterity challenges older adults face, such as climbing up ramps and stairs. It is also programmed to differentiate between different colored medicine bottles (made of LEGO'S). It can pick up a green bottle surrounded by other bottles and retrieve it without disturbing the others, Riedel says.

The project that won the Height Differential team the Innovative Solutions Award is an invention they came up with that would help seniors with memory loss. They have named it the "Picto Phone." This phone would have a screen that would automatically display still pictures of the person calling, along with relationship information.

"They really did an amazing job thinking this through and covering every aspect of the project," Height Differential coach Anne Whiting says.

Whiting says the kids interviewed family members of people with Alzheimer's, spoke with numerous seniors, looked at development costs and talked to product marketers.

"A lot of older people don't know how to use computers, but with this they don't have to. It's all controlled by the person calling you," Whiting's daughter Gracie explains.

Fun while learning essential life and employment skills

Riedel says that the wonderful thing about FLL is that the kids are having fun while learning.

"They are not just building robots," Riedel says. "These kids are learning to research, how to work effectively as a team, set priorities, resolve conflict and learn public speaking skills by presenting their ideas to judges."

Riedel says that he has noticed a real progression in the team this year.

"They have found what aspects of the project they enjoy the most and have gravitated toward specializing in those. The kids have realized their potential and have gained self confidence, which is a great thing to see," he says.

Some of the kids have found that they enjoy designing and programming the robots, for example, while others really like conducting research and presenting their ideas to judges, Riedel says.

"I like the creative side of the competition," 15-year-old Katie Riedel says. "I enjoy writing the skit we present to judges and making brochures and videos."

Her 12-year-old brother Nick says he likes the head-to-head competition and especially enjoys building and programming the robots.

Height Differential's kids are a close-knit group. They are all friends who enjoy the team camaraderie and the thrill of competition. Some team members say they already have career aspirations in the science and engineering fields.

"It's really fun to spend a whole day hanging out with friends and being part of a team," 13-year-old Charlie Whiting says. "I like programming the robots and would like to be a programmer or roller coaster engineer some day," he added.

Height Differential coaches -- Jack and Teri Riedel, Anne Whiting and Christine Altenhofen will be flying to Carlsbad with their championship team for the North American Open this spring.

They are accepting donations and sponsorships to help pay for the cost of the trip. If you would like to make a monetary donation to the team, contributions can be made to: Height Differential in care of Wells Fargo Bank or call Jack Riedel at 651-787-6515. The FLL North American Open is scheduled for May 17-19 in Carlsbad, Cal.

Joshua Nielsen can be reached at jnielsen@ or 651-748-7824.

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