Robot competition fuels future engineers

You can make a lot of things out of Legos. The Death Star. A Settlers of Catan game board (personal favorite). Oh and also…ROBOTS.

No one knows this better than the hundreds of 4th to 8th graders that piled into the North Dakota State University Bentson-Bunker Fieldhouse last Saturday, for the FIRST Robotics Lego League competition. The competition served as a practice round for the statewide competition, which will take place in Grand Forks in February.

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This year, the Lego robots must complete a series of tasks within the Trash Trek; a course designed around teaching kids about sustainability. Tasks include sorting garbage, recycling, lifting plastic out of water, and others. Teams earn points for the amount of tasks they can complete within 2.5 minutes.

The Holly Hydras, a team of young boys from Holly took home first place and a big gold trophy for best mechanical design. When there name was announced, they clambered wildly together, lifting the trophy in the air.

When asked why they enjoy the competition, they answered, “’Cause it’s awesome.”

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The process of building their robot, they said, required programming, adding sensors, and measuring by rotations. Many of the robots are built with Lego Mindstorms, a kit designed by Lego that allows you to program a robot with moving parts.

“I want to build robots when I’m older,” said one, a 6th grader.

This, fostering an interest in the world of tech, is exactly what the competition is designed to do. It started in 1989, when Dean Kamen founded FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). It’s now a non-profit organization that designs programs used all over the world.

In Fargo, regional schools participate every year in the statewide Lego League competition. This year things took a whopping jump from 7 teams last year, to 30 teams this year, with over 150 students participants. They come from public schools, private schools, homeschool organizations, low income schools – each with the intent of giving students a hand-on experience in the STEM field.

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Local companies are the main sponsors to make the event happen. Sam Wheeldon, a technical manager at John Deere, leads John Deere’s involvement with the event and has a daughter who competed with the all girl’s team. This year John Deere is sponsoring 24 teams.

Why? They consider it a long-term investment.

“We need to attract more people to these technical fields,” Wheeldon said. “We [John Deere] can’t go to a college tomorrow and say we need these people, please train all these people. We need to start younger. By the time they get to college, they’ve already decided to be something else. We want to get them excited about technology early on.”

There is a special emphasis on drawing more girls into technology too, Wheeldon said. This year there are a few all-girls teams participating. His daughter said she enjoys the program, “because you get to research all types of things.”

“More women are graduating college than men…but the percentage of women who go into tech fields is much lower,” Wheeldon said. “We need to attract more women into engineering.”

The official FIRST Lego League state competition will take place on February 6 in Grand Forks.

Photos by Marisa Jackels.

Marisa Jackels

Marisa Jackels

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