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Chemists Help Local Students Win LEGO Robotics Competition

Kim McDonald | December 11, 2006

From left to right: Nick Pankow, Tom Simpson (team coach), Anthony Santos, Tori Maches, Scott Maches (team coach), Andrew Benedict-Philipp, chemistry professor Michael Sailor, Zack Maches, Anna Kornfeld Simpson, Renee Brawley, UCSD graduate student Anne Ruminski, Sara Kornfeld Simpson and Kyle Marcotte. Photo / Jill Pankow

The subject of nanotechnology might seem a bit over the heads of high school students, let alone middle and elementary students. But a group of fifth- to ninth-grade students from San Diego city schools managed to employ one of the latest developments in nanotechnology from UCSD to win this month's FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) LEGO League Southern California robotics challenge at Carlsbad’s Legoland.

It all started when the students visited the laboratory of UCSD chemistry professor Michael Sailor in October to learn more about nanotechnology at a workshop he sponsored.

 “The purpose of the workshop was to explore the possibility of integrating nanosensors in the robots the students were building for the contest,” he said. “The students successfully integrated a porous silicon chip into a robot that sounded an alarm when it encountered vapors from a volatile organic compound, which in this case was rubbing alcohol.”

Credit: Michael J. Sailor, UCSD

The students were aided by chemistry graduate student Anne Ruminski, visiting scientist Corrina Thompson and student researcher Stephanie Vinson from La Jolla High School, who had been working in Sailor's laboratory on silicon chips called photonic crystal gas sensors. These materials change color when exposed to specific chemical vapors. To get their robot to see the color change, the student team used the light sensors that are sold with the LEGO robot kits.

”Using your porous silicon chip, said the proud parent of one of the winning students, Anna Kornfeld Simpson, “Anna and the team wowed the judges with a demonstration of a robot that started beeping when the chip was mist sprayed with isopropyl alcohol, and signaled a second robot to sound an alarm. The demonstration was part of a research presentation on porous silicon nanotechnology based on the workshop and follow-up research. That presentation, along with a robot that performed splendidly at the competition table, earned the team the championship and an invitation to compete at the FIRST LEGO League World Championship in Atlanta this spring.”

Credit: Scott Maches
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