More than 100 boys and girls from communities throughout the western half of Nebraska spent the better part of a recent Saturday together, in a competition that rewarded their imagination, creativity, cooperation and good sportsmanship. On the line was a trip to compete at the state level.
It was a day of competition and games, but it wasn’t athletic. It was a regional qualifying meet for FIRST Lego League, a global program sponsored by FIRST, a non-profit designed to inspire young people’s interest and participation in science and technology and pursue education and careers in STEM fields, and Lego, the maker of toy blocks and kits.
Seventeen teams took part in the regional qualifier, and seven of the teams qualified for the Nebraska State competition Feb. 17, at the Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum near Ashland. At the same time, seven teams participated in a FIRST Lego League Junior Showcase, for youth in grades one through three.
Worldwide, FIRST Lego League is made up of 35,200 teams of up to 10 members each, more than 280,000 participants altogether, from nearly 90 countries, according to the organization’s website. FIRST Lego League Jr., for grades K-4, had 14,000 teams with 86,000 participants.
4-H is a nationwide partner in FIRST Lego League. There are a number or regional qualifying meets in Nebraska where teams can compete for a trip to the state competition. The Sidney tournament has grown from nine teams in 2013 to 17 teams this year. The teams come from Scotts Bluff, Sioux, Sheridan, Kimball, and Hooker counties. Most work with their local extension educators and are part of their local 4-H programs, but some are school teams or after-school clubs.
The qualifiers start at the end of December at different locations around Nebraska. This was the fourth year for the qualifying tournament in Sidney, and it has grown every year, according to Tournament Director Cynthia Gill, Cheyenne County Extension Educator who works with 4-H and youth development.
Local teams were formed last August and met for several months to prepare.
While working on their projects, the teams try to incorporate FIRST Lego League’s core values, which emphasize discovery, teamwork and good sportsmanship.
The other part of FIRST Lego League is robot games. Each team designs, builds and programs a robot using Lego Mindstorms ®, and then they compete on a table-top playing field. The playing fields, constructed on tabletop surfaces with Lego pieces, are all identical and set up to provide both tasks for the robots to complete and obstacles to overcome. During the robot games each team gets three rounds to see who can reach the highest score.
For three rounds, the teams put their robots through their table-top paces, completing several tasks related to picking up, moving, and putting down various LEGO cargoes at different points on the table.
Several teams from Scotts Bluff County (including a team from Mitchell Elementary School) were among the competitors at Sidney. In addition to Schwartz, several volunteers help coach and prepare teams in Scotts Bluff County.
Locally, more kids are getting involved in FIRST Lego League. Schwartz said this is the third year that Scotts Bluff County has had a 4-H club focused on FLL. The first year, the team ordered a kit and started to build it, but ran out of time, so the kids watched the qualifier, but didn’t compete. A year ago, one team competed. This year, Scotts Bluff County took two regular teams and one junior team (Clover Kid age). One of the teams qualified for state.
As with other 4-H programs, adult volunteers are welcome and needed, according to Schwartz. The only qualities required of volunteers are an interest in working with youth, and they must pass a background check. Schwartz said the volunteers work side-by-side with the youth and learn at the same time, adding, “adults don’t have all the answers.”
Results from the Sidney qualifier:
Volunteer Award: Gowrav Ghatamaneni of Sidney.
Coach/mentor award: Craig Markum of Kimbots (Kimball).
Judges’ Choice Award (team that lived the core values by connecting with others): Hydro Hackers from Sidney.
Project award: Stormclouds of Sidney.
Global Innovation Award: Central Sandhills MechTechs of Mullen.
Robot Design Award: Hyannis Sandbots.
Robot Performance Award: Kimbots, with a high score of 80. Two teams scored 80 points but the Kimbots had a follow up score of 70 in another match.
Core Values Award: Blazing Tiger Bot Builders, Mitchell.
Champion’s Award: Central Sandhills MechTechs from Mullen.
These seven teams will advance to the Nebraska Championship at the Nebraska Robotics Expo: Blazing Tiger Bots, Mitchell; Central Sandhills MechTechs; Spartabots 1 from Perkins County; Spartabots 2 from Perkins County; Rogue Robbie’s Dream Team from Sidney; Mandroids from Scotts Bluff County; Techno Huskers from Hay Springs.