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Robotics Team Fight Hunger

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Food Lifeline and the BOTS robotic team at Puesta del Sol Elementary School are challenged by the same statistic: About 40 percent of food produced in this country goes to waste, while people are still going hungry.

Salvaging some of that wasted food is a logistical problem. And the fifth-grade BOTS team is on it!

Their team – Dylan, Ian, Maya, Ryan, Sam and Victoria – is participating in the 2015 international FIRST LEGO League Trash Trek challenge. It’s a three-part assignment: building a LEGO robot to score game points by performing a series of tasks related to trash, coming up with a real-world solution to handling waste and doing both in the spirit of the FIRST LEGO League core values (among them, “What we discover is more important than what we win”).

The BOTS team contacted Food Lifeline staff about their idea for salvaging edible food that otherwise would go to waste: a Food Bus. People would fill out an online pick-up sheet, leave their donations outside their house and a bus would pick up the food for distribution to food banks.

The team spun its idea off a Hopelink bus that comes to their school to collect food.

They recently presented their concept to Sarah Benner-Kenagy, Food Lifeline food procurement manager, and Bernardo Serna, marketing and communications coordinator, in a skit the kids wrote as part of their team challenge. The students passed around a microphone as they read dialog that was, in turn, funny, informative and persuasive.

“It’s a food bus that picks things up from your home and gives to the hungry and the homeless,” Dylan’s character says in the skit. “Get it? ‘Home,’ homeless, home pick-up!”

Benner-Kenagy and Serna applauded the performance and praised the BOTS’ creativity. When the team asked for feedback on the feasibility of their idea, Benner-Kenagy stressed the importance of food safety and maintaining the “cold chain” during transportation of foods that require refrigeration or freezing.

“If you focused only on canned goods, it would really simplify your idea,” she told the students. “If you’re collecting perishable food, you definitely would need a refrigeration unit.” Benner-Kenagy then commended the team for thinking about the transportation of perishable donations since they’re hard for food banks to come by and nutritionally valuable.

A young student in the audience asked how the vehicle would be powered. Maya – driven by a tight timeline and a looming qualifying tournament -- gave an answer that would resonate with anyone who has ever faced a deadline on a group goal: “We’re in this to get this project done so we have it,” she replied. “We’ll get to that later!”

The Puesta del Sol team is coached by Zelda Menard and team teacher Anna Alfonso, aided by high-school students Delphine and Parker from Newport High’s rebotics group. Parker said their goal was to help introduce younger kids to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

“At first, we help them a lot,” Delphine said. “Then they blast off on their own ideas.”

“The idea is that the kids do it,” Menard said. “We are there to support them.”

The toy robot the BOTS team built performs a series of tasks that demolishes a “building,” salvages its contents and dispenses a puck of “compost” that can be re-used to grow food. The children approach their contest in a spirit of “cooperatition” and described their team talents as “Businesslike,” “Original,” “Talented” and “Smart.”

Get it? BOTS!

“The kids did an outstanding job on their presentation,” Benner-Kenagy said. “I was impressed with the creative solution they came up with, and with the questions they asked. The Food Bus addresses some of the logistical challenges around reducing food waste while helping feed hungry people.”

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