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Lego robots (and kid creators) march toward victory

Published January 7, 2014 8:45 am

Competition • You have to be smart to program robots in the Utah First Lego League.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Murray • Legos aren't just for building castles anymore. They're not just those dangerous little things you step on in the dark.

"Now, they'll follow you and nip at your heels," joked Tony Byrom, coach of the Wacky Wasatch Wobots, who compete in the Utah First Lego League.

Yes, there's a statewide Lego competition. It's part of a national competition.

And, shhhhh! Don't tell the kids, but they're learning at the same time they're building Lego robots.

"The kids have to think creatively, like a scientist, to build a robot that can complete various tasks," said Thad Kelling, spokesman for the Utah First Lego League, which is headquartered at the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute at the University of Utah. "It's open-ended. Very much like a real engineering experience."

Teams spend months working on their presentations, building their robots and programming them.

They start out with a computer about the size of a bar of soap and a kit containing Lego parts. They can add other parts — but it all has to be from Lego. No rubber bands or paper clips in these football-sized robots.

And then the kids spend months working on their presentations, building their robots and programming the computers inside them. The robots have to maneuver about a table, racking up points from the judges as they complete various tasks.

The competitors are given a theme — this year, it's natural disasters — and they put together presentations in addition to the robot-building and robot-programming.

"Programming is the toughest part," said Kyle Hase, 11. "It takes a long time. You have to just keep trying."

"You need to make sure it's consistent, and half the time it isn't," said Aparna Ray, 13. "And by the time you run it, a hundred other things are wrong."

It can very exciting when things work they way they're supposed to. It's all cheers and high-fives when it works. Even when it works part of the time.

"The robot did not do everything we wanted it to do," said Jody Rowser, who coaches a team from Riverton and Bluffdale.

"It did some stuff we didn't want it to do," said her daughter, Emily.

But given that "none of the programs were functioning properly" shortly before their robot competed, "to actually have stuff working was great," Jody Rowser said.

The competition at Murray High was one of six qualifiers on Saturday; there are eight more on Saturday, Jan. 11; the state championship is Saturday, Jan. 25, at the University of Utah.

(For more information and results, go to utfl.utah.edu.)

"It's kind of a sneaky way to get kids to think about programming," Kelling said. "How many kids in middle school want anything to do with programming?"

The emphasis is on fun; the learning just sort of happens. As does the frustration.

Not all the teams named their robots, but the Wacky Wasatch Wobots from Wasatch Junior High dubbed theirs Travicus Scorpius.

"It kind of like makes it so it has a personality," said Cynthia Chen, 13.

"Its personality is feisty," Ray said.

"And stubborn," added Chen.

spierce@sltrib.com