Fourteen teams of 9- to 14-year-olds pitted custom-built Lego robots against each other in a robotics competition at the Student Union and Recreation Center at Central Washington University on Saturday.
The teams, with about 200 players, coaches, parents and volunteers, were part of the FIRST Lego League. The Lego league is an age group in the FIRST, or For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, robotics education program.
The nonprofit group sponsors activities for students with the goal of getting young people engaged with science and technology, though the students might be having too much fun to realize it.
“I like Lego, and I like robots,” John Anvik Jr., 10, said. “I found something that was good for both.”
Anvik and his brother are on a team called Artificial Intelligence, or A.I., through the Kittitas County Washington State University extension program’s 4-H Club.
John’s coach, Dale Larson, said his 10-person team had to work together to apply math they learned in school to figure out how to program the robot.
“The goal isn’t to solve the task, it’s to evaluate how they work together as a team at solving the task, because that is one of the hallmarks of FIRST,” he said. “It’s a collaborative enterprise.”
Another team member, Matthew Sautter, 13, was trying to fix up the team’s robot between rounds.
Scores consider how the robots perform in competition, research projects and teamwork and sportsmanship.
For the robot competition, the teams pit their robots against an obstacle course built on a 4-foot by 8-foot table and try to complete as many tasks as possible before time runs out.
At CWU on Saturday, the teams rotated through four tables as music played and referees looked over the kids’ shoulders to keep score.
Matthew was trying to fix an arm on the robot so it would swing around and roll a ball at some Lego bowling pins.
He said it was fun, but not without frustration.
“It was just dropping the ball and not swinging it out,” he said. “I think we started getting better at that, though.”
For the research piece, the teams address an issue presented by one of the themes FIRST creates each year, said Michael Campbell, the organization’s regional director in the state.
This year’s theme is Senior Solutions. The teams connect with a senior citizen in their community, he said, and create an idea for an invention that would help with a challenge seniors face. The teams then present that idea to a panel of judges for review.
“Think of that as an opportunity for the kids to show the judges how well they did understanding how technology and seniors interact,” he said.
Larson said his team focused on memory loss for their project.
“They dreamed up this hybrid thing,” he said. “It cools and cooks and dispenses food on a schedule and reminds you that it’s time to eat. And then it’s got a fingerprint-secure medication dispenser.”
The dispenser prevents overdosing and notifies the user’s health care provider if someone misses a dose, he said.
Susan Bryant, coach of the Silver Circuits, another team in Ellensburg, said her team spoke to seniors at Dry Creek Assisted Living and came up with a battery-powered “assist seat” that would help people stand up from chairs.
Her son is on the team with three other boys.
“Way back when, I would have died to have been involved in something like this,” she said, adding she equates the competitions with sporting events.
“It gives the kids energy and enthusiasm for exploring,” she said.
Gabe Bryant, 13, said part of what he likes about the program is that it commends a too often overlooked group of people.
“It encourages kids not just to look up to people, say, in acting or in sports, but to the people who really make more of an impact on society. Engineers and teachers,” he said.
One of Gabe’s teammates, Caleb Rudd, 14, said he’s interested in computer programming, and likes how he gets the chance to try it out with FIRST.
“What I like about this program is that it’s very intimate. You get your hands into everything you possibly can when it comes to the robot. You program it, you build it, you design it,” he said. “And you learn a lot.”
Matthew Travis, 14, said he agreed, adding, “it’s also Lego.”
John Anvik Sr., whose two boys are on the Artificial Intelligence team, said as a computer science professor at CWU, he’s glad to see them exercising their problem solving abilities.
“My boys, they just love Lego and they’re always building stuff,” he said. “This got them into being able to use their creativity for science, which, being a science professional, I really support.”
Campbell said the group’s goal in the state is to try to stir up more interest in Central Washington.
“There’s kids in this part of the state who are fired up about science and technology, or could be, but the nearest place they could play is Spokane, Seattle or the Tri-Cities,” he said.
In addition to the two Ellensburg teams who competed Saturday, a group of high school students from Thorp also is competing in FIRST events this year.
With CWU hosting events, Campbell hopes more teams form in Central Washington.
Arthur Morken, who works at CWU’s engineering technology, safety and construction department and helps with FIRST, said he’s optimistic more kids, parents and schools will start forming teams.
“I think the question you’ll really see next year is parents asking, why aren’t we doing this in our school?” he said.