On a table in the center of the room, autonomous Lego robots pushed, pulled and stacked Lego pieces without human direction while several hundred parents and children milled around inspecting the creations. The robots were part of the FIRST Junior Lego League exhibition held Saturday afternoon in the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry’s auditorium.
About 25 teams from around Southwestern Washington and Oregon, including two teams from Longview, participated in the afternoon program (FIRST stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). Each team at the exhibition consisted of kids ages 6 through 9 that had been tasked with creating a nature scene built entirely from Legos, and included a motor with a Lego bee and beehive.
Teams also had to tie their project in with a larger narrative: Each group picked an animal that related to bees in some way, and did research on the animal’s habitat, eating habits and behavioral patterns. The group then had to turn that research into a poster display board that detailed their findings.
Taylor Aberle from Longview Parks and Recreation’s “Nature Builders” team stared intently at a tablet and fiddled with a couple buttons as he checked his Legos in front of him. Suddenly, a motor whirred to life, and a rod of Legos moved 180 degrees to depress a button. In response, more pieces moved and came to life, and allowed two round Legos to roll down into the waiting arms of two Lego men.
“These guys are harvesting the honey, and this is ranger’s territory,” Taylor explained. He demonstrated the robotic part of the work two more times. Taylor was able to control the Lego’s movement from a program on a tablet that communicated with the Legos on a bluetooth connection. The rest of the scene was an intricate grassland with streams, living and dead trees and bears, the animal of choice for both Longview teams.
Longview’s second team, “Electro Flame” featured a bear crawling up a tree in a river and forest scene.
“So the tablet is connected to the motor,” said Jack Sullivan. “And once the bear goes down, it will release the honey for the bears to eat.” As Jack, 8, pressed a button on a tablet, the bear descended a tree, pressed a button, and several pieces denoting “honey” rolled out of the Lego construction.
Along with the Longview teams, hundreds of other kids demonstrated similar projects all around the auditorium. Eventually, they shared their work with reviewers − high school students working in higher levels of the FIRST program. Reviewers spoke with each team to discuss their research and how they used teamwork to create their projects.
“This is approaching the kids in the language they’re familiar with,” said FIRST program manager Loridee Wetzel. “We’re taking toys and some fundamentals of education, things they’ve been interacting with ... since they were born.”
Students can continue on with the FIRST program, eventually entering competitions where teams design their own solution to a current scientific question or problem, along with building autonomous Lego robots.
“I love this program because you get such a great emerging of ideas and then the fundamentals of engineering, the very basics of design and build, and we’re now introducing more elements of programming,” Wetzel said.
Longview also has two teams with older members from age 9 to 14, who went on to display their projects at a national competition in St. Louis last year.
The teams are largely organized by coach Bob Koenig, a retired teacher from Mark Morris High School. Koenig founded the school’s “Bits and Bots” robotics club back in 2011.
Not only do students learn research and problem solving skills, Koenig said, the program encourages “core values, like teaching kids teamwork and gracious professionalism and how to behave and get along.”
The clubs will host their own exposition at the Cowlitz County Expo Center on April 15 as part of the annual Earth Day celebration.
The FIRST program is a nationwide program and nonprofit that seeks to stoke a passion for science, technology, engineering and math (commonly referred to as STEM) through the use of Legos and problem-solving skills. There are over 3,000 teams worldwide with 75,000 members that exhibit and compete at four different levels.
The Nature Builders team included: Keigan Rodriguez, Ella Martin, Trystan Kizer, Taylor Aberle, Caleb Kizer and Juice Quiroz, and were coached by parents Morgan and Andrea Aberle. The Electro Flame team was comprised of members Will Cheslock, Jack Sullivan, Maverick Gosselin, Cyson Austin, Henry Upshaw and Jeff Anderson with John Cheslock and Kaillie Thompson.