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Pupils from schools across the Outer Hebrides gathered at Sir E Scott in Harris yesterday (Wed, Jan 30) to take part in an international competition about building and programming Lego robots.

It was the first time the Outer Hebrides had taken part in the First Lego League tournament and Sgoil Lionacleit, Castlebay and Sir E Scott battled it out with their robot designs, while a group from the Nicolson observed the day, to get ideas for next time. A team from the Isle of Arran had hoped to participate remotely via video link but had technical issues at their end.

Judges scored the teams on their robot design and its performance in a task-based game, as well as on a research project and their interpretation of First Lego League core values.

Sgoil Lionacleit won the robot challenge and were the overall winners, while Castlebay – the only school with a gender-balanced team – won core values and Sir E Scott won the research project.

The event was organised by Lews Castle College UHI with the support of The Institution of Engineering and Technology and the Energy Skills Partnership, as well as sponsorship from community wind farm charity Point and Sandwick Trust, which gave £2,000 for the travel and accommodation costs of bringing the school teams up to Harris from the Southern Isles.

Roddy Ferguson, head of technology at Lews Castle College UHI, was one of the main organisers of the Outer Hebrides tournament, part of the “worldwide competition to try to encourage more young people to engage in STEM activities”.

Giving out the awards at the end, he told the teams: “Everyone here was impressed, with the standards of your presentations and all the work you’ve done over the last few weeks.”

He added afterwards: “The standard of the teams was excellent. They should be proud of themselves. They’ve done really well. All the teams were really enthusiastic and very knowledgeable of the different aspects of the design and the projects.

“The whole thing was a success in terms of getting more young people in the Outer Hebrides involved in some of the STEM subjects like coding, programming, maths, engineering, design.”

There were two main parts to the day. The first was question and answer sessions, with each session taking place in a room that had one judge physically present and another two judges present by video link, thanks to the Energy Skills Partnership.

Robot design was judged by Andrew Mackenzie, a Lews Castle College UHI engineering lecturer, Point and Sandwick Trust board member and representative of The Institution of Engineering and Technology Scotland North.

Dr Chris Macleod, another Lews Castle College UHI lecturer and founder of The Innovation Centre judged the research project, while Donald John MacSween, Point and Sandwick Trust general manager, judged core values.

Afterwards, the teams battled it out on the main display tables where they had to programme their robots to carry out specified tasks.

Teams were scored throughout according to criteria provided by First Lego League.

Judge Andrew Mackenzie said it had been “so nice to see young people getting together, travelling quite long distances to compete in a technological competition”.

He added: “The kids worked very well as a team. They were involved in the programming, mechanical design and the judges looked at all aspects – the design, the strategy, the robustness of the robots. They were all very different designs. One had a lot of sensors, was quite complicated and quite ambitious, but sometimes simple is best.

“It was great to see young people working as a team, being enthusiastic about the programme and solving real problems.

“Lego is so sophisticated now, with sensors and inbuilt computers and all the mechanical bits and pieces – on the surface simple but underneath very sophisticated. Without Lego’s input this couldn’t happen and the great thing is the programming of the computer is pretty straightforward at one level but can be pretty sophisticated at another level with sensors, feedback loops and decision making.”

From his perspective as a Point and Sandwick Trust board member, Andrew pointed out that “one of our objectives is education” and added he was “very pleased” to have supported a tournament for young people from a wider area than just Point and Sandwick.

“This is the whole of the Western Isles and it’s encouraging young people to think about STEM subjects. We gave them £2,000 without which it couldn’t happen and we’re very happy to do that.”

Fellow judge and Innovation Centre founder Dr Chris Macleod said it was “a really good thing” to have brought pupils from the different islands together in the one place. “All the pupils were in the Nicolson when I was in school but they’re all in separate places on separate islands now.”

The tournament had helped boost teamwork and STEM activities, he said, particularly in relation to programming and coding, “which they need to know for a career nowadays”.

He added that the involvement of Lews Castle College UHI, the Innovation Centre and Point and Sandwick Trust all “dovetails together” – with Point and Sandwick Trust previously having given £20,000 for the expansion of the Innovation Centre at the college.

He pointed out that STEM activities were one of the main elements of the Innovation Centre’s work. “It’s all about coding and robots and Point and Sandwick Trust have been of huge benefit to us in the Innovation Centre and this project.

“I would say Point and Sandwick are one of very few organisations on the island that are forward looking and outward looking and innovative in looking to the future rather than the past.”

The STEM acronym stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics and the First Lego League tournament is based around building and programming Mindstorm Lego Robots.

It is held every year, with a different theme each year. The theme for 2019 was space, or ‘Into Orbit’, and the Castlebay team’s research project on the topic came in for special praise.

Retired teacher David Smith, who was acting as Master-of-Ceremonies for the day in Tarbert, told the girls from Barra he had “never enjoyed anything so much”, in 30 years of teaching engineering science, as their presentation.

“If there was anything to advertise the need for more girls and women to come into engineering, that proved it – and I hope they do, both of them, become ‘world-famous engineers’!”

Lauren MacNeil, 12, from the Castlebay team, was one of the two presenters and said afterwards: “It’s been amazing. We’ve had so much fun getting here and doing this.” Meanwhile, Maureen Monaghan, a chemistry teacher accompanying the Castlebay group, said: “It’s been a brilliant day for them. They’ve had loads of fun, just meeting the other schools. It’s been great fun.”

Donald John MacSween, Point and Sandwick Trust general manager, said: “Point and Sandwick Trust were especially pleased to sponsor this competition involving schools teams from across the Western Isles, and it was a great pleasure and privilege to play a part in the day.

“We hope that all these young people will be inspired to become the next generation of home-grown scientists, engineers, technologists, mathematicians and entrepreneurs, located in the islands, developing our abundant renewable energy and other resources for the benefit of their community. They were very impressive and we could certainly see some real stars of the future amongst them.”

The First Lego League is open to children aged from nine to 16 and pupils participating ranged from primary seven to senior secondary years.

Pictures: A selection from the tournament at Sir E Scott on Wednesday, January 30. Pictures by Sandie Maciver of SandiePhotos for Point and Sandwick Trust