LEGOs, robots and comestibles met Saturday as kids age 9 to 14, urged on by cheering crowds, put their mechanical creations to the test in a series of "missions," such as moving LEGO bacteria across a large tabletop to a LEGO sink.
The Food Factor bouts engaged 1,500 kids on 150 teams in a project that started about three months ago to teach them about food safety and about how to work together in an atmosphere of friendly competition and gracious professionalism.
In the competition pit at the McGillis School in Salt Lake City, one of seven locations around the state that hosted the first of two qualifying contests in Utah FIRST LEGO League (FIRST means For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), eight boys who made up the Mini-Figure Mayhem team were pleased by their robot's good showing, even though it stalled when trying to use its forklift to move a truck to what seemed to be a little loading dock.
"It's really fun," said Ethan Pedersen, 11. "It takes a lot of dedication."
Ethan's mom, Misty Pedersen, seconded that. Every Friday night since Sept. 1, and on multiple days during the school holidays, she and her husband, Peter, a software developer, drove to the Salt Lake City home of Chris Hirschi, the team's coach, so her science-minded boy could get involved in something new.
"I saw him make the choice to commit to it," she said. "And I saw him learn how to work with a team."
Harnessing the energy of such young people to build robots as a team has become a big deal. This is Utah's second year to join with the annual global competition, which organizers say drew 200,000 children and 54,000 volunteers in more than 55 countries.
Navigating their creations through a variety of challenges in 2 Â½ minutes on a themed playing field is just one-third of the "sporting event of technology," Hirschi said. The teams also have to present and defend their design decisions before judges and demonstrate their understanding of core values that include learning together to find solutions.
For Mini-Figure Mayhem, made up mostly of 9-year-olds, that meant abandoning their grand plan to ignore the basic robot design included in the LEGO Mindstorms kit they worked with and build their own.
A mechanical engineer and robot builder for Raytheon, Hirschi could only watch and make gentle suggestions. Parents and coaches "never touch the robots," he said. "It was always [the boys'] decision."
Construction included pre-programming the "brick" computer to control the system, an assembly of modular sensors, motors and LEGO parts that came with the kit.
The competitions are the brainchild of Segway inventor Dean Kamen, who came up with the Food Factor notion this year as a way to combat childhood obesity by teaching kids there is room for invention when it comes to food preparation, delivery and consumption and that their choices matter. Participants not only built robots but they also researched those topics along with how to prevent or combat food contamination.
Competitions Saturday were held in Salt Lake City, Holladay, Midvale, Price, Lehi, Murray and St. George.
What is FIRST LEGO League?
The League is a global effort to teach kids age 9 to 14 (16 in Canada) science, technology and teamwork through robotics competitions. Using the LEGO Mindstorms kits that include software and hardware to create small, customizable and programmable robots, participants compete in a series of local, regional, national and international tournaments. The University of Utah is a partner in FIRST LEGO League through its Office of Technology Venture Development. For more information or to register for the next championship, go to http://www.utfll.utah.edu.
More tournaments on tap
Another round of qualifying tournaments in Utah will take place Jan. 14 at Ecker Hill Middle School, 2465 W. Kilby Road, Park City, and at Weber State University's Student Union, 3848 Harrison Blvd., Ogden. The top teams will advance to the state championships on Jan. 28 at the University of Utah Student Union, 200 S. Central Campus Drive, Salt Lake City.