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Youngsters to show off robotics skills at LEGO championship

FIRST LEGO League Team
December 10, 2013

Statewide STEM outreach program growing under direction of ASU’s Fulton Schools of Engineering and support from industry, community partners

Close to 500 middle school students, ages nine to 14, will bring their robots to Arizona State University’s Tempe campus on Dec. 14 to compete in the annual Arizona FIRST LEGO League state championship tournament.

Organized and hosted by ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering for a sixth consecutive year, it will feature 56 top-performing teams selected from more than 300 that competed in recent regional qualifying tournaments.

Teams are scored on their design, construction and programming of small, mobile robots made from LEGO MINDSTORMS robotics kits that must perform specified technical missions. They’re also evaluated on the creativity of their proposed solutions to a particular societal challenge. This year’s challenge theme is “Nature’s Fury.”

Teams were assigned to select a specific region or locale anywhere in the world that has been affected by natural disasters. For months, they’ve worked on ideas for ways those communities could prepare for and cope with the impacts of tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis and similar destructive events.

In addition to technological and problem-solving skills, students are judged on how they act in accordance with FIRST LEGO League’s “core values” of teamwork, respect for fellow competitors, friendship and sharing, and valuing the joy of learning and discovery.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is an international organization founded by well-known inventor Dean Kamen that designs programs to motivate children to pursue opportunities in science, technology and engineering, and helps teach them the skills to reach their goals.

Tournament day at ASU will also include the Junior FIRST LEGO League Expo. Nearly 100 teams of students ages six to eight will participate in a Show Me poster exhibit with the theme “Disaster Blaster.” The teams have learned about simple machines and used LEGO Elements kits to build moving models of scenes before, during and after natural disasters.

Growth, success comes from partnerships

The Arizona FIRST LEGO League program continues to expand to more schools. The number of teams participating has nearly quadrupled since the Fulton Schools of Engineering began managing the program in 2008. The STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education effort now reaches more than 2,000 students throughout the state.

Dozens of ASU faculty, staff and students help put on the championship tournament. But much of the program’s success is being driven by industry and community partners, says Jennifer Velez, a K-12 outreach coordinator for ASU’s engineering schools and the operational partner for Arizona FIRST LEGO League.

Intel, General Motors, Raytheon, The Tooker Foundation and Time Warner Cable have become sponsors, while volunteers have come from Honeywell, Boeing, Microchip, the U.S. Army, Salt River Project, Arizona Public Service Co., Goodwill of Central Arizona and the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association. Such partners are making it possible for FIRST LEGO League teams to interact with professional engineers and experts in science and technology-related fields, Velez says.

The growing industry and community relationships are also spawning new student teams. This year, Intel has assembled four all­-girl teams for students from underserved neighborhoods in Chandler, South Phoenix and the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. Building Dreams – a program within The Salvation Army, Phoenix South Mountain Ray & Joan Kroc Corps Community Center – has also formed teams of youths from some of the city’s underserved areas.

Nurturing the spirit of innovation

The goals of FIRST LEGO League align perfectly with Intel’s corporate responsibility mandate, which focuses on education, says Don Wilde, an Intel software engineer who has helped lead the company’s support of the program. More than 60 Intel employees have volunteered time regularly to help form and mentor student teams in the past two years. In addition, the Intel Foundation has provided funding to support the teams’ activities.

The company’s employees have hosted “scrimmages” for the teams to prepare for tournaments, and in March, Intel will hold its own invitational tournament for FIRST LEGO League teams that did not get to this year’s championship tournament. “We don’t want to let that spirit of FIRST LEGO League die out in them,” Wilde says. “These kids are the future. Teaching them to think creatively, to be problem-solvers and leaders is thoroughly in our best interests.”

Automation engineer Levar Patterson, an information technology manager for Intel, co-founded Building Dreams to help youths from underserved areas develop STEM skills and raise their awareness of educational and career opportunities. Through his partnership with the Kroc Community Center, he has formed two FIRST LEGO League teams that will compete in the state championships.

Patterson was also a regional director for the first-ever FIRST LEGO League regional qualifying tournament in South Phoenix, which took place Dec. 7 and drew 28 teams. He hopes to make that tournament a regular event, as well as assemble more teams for future FIRST LEGO League competitions.

Despite the lack of educational opportunity for some of the children, their enthusiasm is undeniable. “These kids are doing things that you would have thought were going to be beyond their understanding. Doing engineering and robotics was unimaginable for some of them. But once they get some guidance and get started, they don’t want to stop,” Patterson says.

Having the state championship at ASU helps the young students envision bigger things in their future. “Most of the kids are oblivious to the paths they could pursue in their lives,” he says. “The championship tournament gives them a look at a college campus at a young age. That begins to plant ideas about the possibilities for themselves.”

The 2013 Arizona FIRST LEGO League state championship can be viewed via live webcast at