Robotics challenge addresses need for more farming

·4 min read

Jul. 21—CUMBERLAND — Young fingers built mini robots that performed tasks across a playing field, but what appeared to be a game was actually a lesson geared to address the need for more farming.

Students that participated in the 4-H LEGO Robotics Challenge at the Allegany County Fair & AG Expo Wednesday demonstrated the importance of aquaculture to feed the world's monumental and increasing demand for food grown under water.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, aquaculture is "the breeding, rearing, and harvesting of animals and plants in all types of water environments."

It is "one of the most resource-efficient ways to produce protein (and) has helped improve nutrition and food security in many parts of the world," NOAA stated and added that globally, aquaculture supplies more than 50% of all seafood produced for human consumption "and that percentage will continue to rise."

Jessica Mellon, 4-H senior agent associate at the University of Maryland Extension in Allegany County, said the challenge included roughly 70 students between ages 8 and 16 on nine teams.

The top two teams from each age division are eligible to represent Allegany County in the Maryland 4-H robotics competition at the state fair in Timonium next month.

The theme for this year's robotics engineering challenge was Aww Shucks: Sustainable Shellfish Aquaculture for a Cleaner Bay.

The subject was chosen to promote health protections for the Chesapeake Bay and incorporated environmental issues that impact farmed seafood into the robotics challenge.

Teams were tasked with building and programing robots made only of LEGOs.

Students maneuvered the machines in playing fields that symbolized elements including a Chesapeake Bay floor reef harvest area, oyster shells, live oysters and pearls.

"The games kind of simulate oyster production," Mellon said.

Each team also researched the topic to create an educational module for a service project aimed to educate the public.

Robotics education includes Science, Technology, Engineering and Math skills to build a machine that performs a task.

Maryland 4-H creates a robotics challenge annually, however the event has not been held since 2019 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Mark DeMorra, University of Maryland Extension 4-H Youth Development STEM Specialist, said a $10 million grant facilitated an aquaculture research project focused on shellfish farming.

"The (robotics challenge) games are meant to replicate what underwater robots do," he said.

West Side Elementary student Zoe Ditto, 11, talked of several technical components she learned in order to build a robot, but her latest skills also involved human emotions, diplomacy and negotiation.

"I've learned a lot about how to let things go," she said and added that when mistakes happen, it's important to "try to focus and keep going."

Allegany High School student Jude Gibson-Thoele, 15, started participating in the robotics program when he was in fourth grade.

Competition at this year's challenge was impressive, he said and suggested parents of younger children learn more about the 4-H robotics program First LEGO League.

"It's a great starting point," Gibson-Thoele said.

He was on the Best Ever Engineering Team that in addition to Allegany included students from Fort Hill and Bishop Walsh high, Washington Middle, and home schools.

"That's kind of unique," team coach Dione Clark-Trub said. "It's a good mix of kids."

Her daughter, Kalli Trub, 14, will be a freshman at Fort Hill this year and was also on the B.E.E.T. team.

She talked of missing the robotics challenge during the pandemic.

"It's fun to be back at the fair," Trub said.

The robotics challenge teaches students to persevere when they encounter a problem, Laura Miller, media specialist at West Side Elementary School and a coach for the event, said.

"It's a lot of life lessons," she said.

Maryland 4-H LEGO Challenge Results

—Junior Level, ages 8-10:

1st — A tie between West Side LEGO Eggos and Cresaptown Coders

2nd — West Side Kool-Aid Kids

3rd — West Side Cookie Coders

4th — West Side Robo Pups

—Intermediate Level, ages 11-13:

1st — John Humbird Bulldogs

2nd — West Side Sensor Snakes

—Maryland 4-H Robotics Engineering Challenge

1st — B.E.E.T. (Best Ever Engineering Team)

2nd — Asimov's Lawbringers of Bishop Walsh

Teresa McMinn is the Digital Editor for the Cumberland Times-News. She can be reached at 304-639-2371 or