Robots Challenge Children to Help Older Adults
February 07, 2013 | UNIVERSITY COMMUNICATIONS
Infinite Minds team members from left, Aidan Pearson, Noah Miller,
Kannon Pearson, Mia Miller, Meaghan Pearson and Madison Pearson,
prepare for the FLL 2012 Senior Solutions Challenge at UTEP.
Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP News Service
The FIRST Lego League's (FLL) 2012 Senior Solutions Challenge to be hosted at UTEP's College of Engineering on Feb. 16 is more than just a fun robotics competition for 13-year-old Aidan Pearson.
The contest also is an opportunity for him and his siblings Kannon, Madison and Meaghan, and their Infinite Minds teammates Noah and Mia Miller to solve a real world problem for older adults that otherwise prevents them from living healthy and independent lives.
With help from Guillermina Solis, Ph.D., assistant clinical professor in UTEP's School of Nursing, health care professionals and senior citizens, the team of home-schooled students who range in age from 8 to 13 has come up with a creative solution to assist seniors if they fall in the bathroom.
They plan to install sensors underneath the bathroom floor that send a distress signal to summon help if an older adult falls in the shower or slips on the tile.
"This season in FLL, we had been asked to find solutions for seniors," Aidan Pearson said. "My 88-year-old guitar teacher, Mrs. Talbot, told me about her life. How she had been a Rosie the Riveter, how she had lived on a farm. Slowly I began to realize that the reason most seniors want independence is because they used to be a kid just like me," Pearson said.
FIRST Lego League is a robotics program for children ages 9 to 16 that introduces them to real-world engineering challenges.
UTEP organizes the event as part of the "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology" (FIRST) program as a way to attract children to engineering, science, technology and mathematics, said Virgilio Gonzalez, Ph.D., senior lecturer in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the coordinator for the University's robotics program.
Teams from elementary and middle schools will design a solution to a current scientific question or problem and build autonomous Lego robots that perform a series of missions.
For the 2012 theme, "Senior Solutions" teams aim to solve a problem faced by senior citizens, aged 60 years and older.
They are required to do research and consult experts in the field.
"I'm always asking for help," said Cheri Pearson, who coaches the team along with her husband, Derek. "You have to have sources out in the community when you do something like this."
To prepare for the challenge, Infinite Minds members interviewed seniors in the community about the obstacles they face daily.
They also reached out to Solis, who explained the physical changes of aging, the pathological conditions that affect the independence of people as they age, and the older population's safety concerns.
"This information helped the students understand the problems seniors identified during their interviews and got the students to evaluate the feasibility of their creative ideas to help seniors maintain their independence and safety," Solis said.
She emphasized that technology plays a significant role in allowing older adults to remain functional and live at home longer, which leads to a better quality of life.
"Technology can keep (older adults) safe in the home as long as possible," Solis told the students. "There are so many (older adults) that are going to need that. There's going to be a reduction in the number of children we have so there's less of a support system."
After talking to Solis about different ideas that included a GPS shoe and a cane, the group came up with the bathroom floor concept.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year, one in every three adults age 65 and older falls, and they can suffer moderate to severe injuries, such as hip fractures, lacerations and head traumas. These injuries can make it hard for them to get around or live independently and increase their risk of early death.
Two engineers from NASA offered the team feedback on the type of bath mat material that could be used, along with the software and hardware that they should research, including the right sensors.
Cheri Pearson said the challenge of coming up with a solution that addresses the needs of senior citizens has helped the children see beyond themselves and have empathy for the limitations seniors face.
"What I enjoy the most is that the students are thinking beyond the First Lego League," she said. "They don't want to imagine the possibilities of assisting seniors; they want to create the solutions. That is the beautiful thing about involving students in the First Lego League."
The FLL Challenge is divided into three parts: the project, where teams present their research in a skit; the robot game, where teams are judged on how well they program their robot to complete assigned tasks; and the core values, which focus on teamwork skills.
This is the second year that Infinite Minds took up the Challenge. Last February, they won the West Texas regional competition for their project that looked to eliminate pesticides from food. They went on to compete at the FIRST Lego League North American Open Championship in Legoland in Carlsbad, Calif., where they won a trophy for Gracious Professionalism.
Pearson has home schooled her four children starting with Aidan when he was 5 years old. Once a week, the team meets in the ACES classrooms in the UTEP College of Engineering.
She also has made it possible for home-schooled students from across El Paso to become immersed in the UTEP atmosphere. Last year, she arranged for 60 home-schooled students to attend the University's chemistry and physics circuses.
"I would love to bring more home schoolers to UTEP to say, 'This is what you can do with your future,"' Pearson said.
For information about the FLL's 2012 Senior Solutions Challenge, visit http://firstlegoleague.org/challenge/2012seniorsolutions.
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