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Seeking solutions using Legos
[January 21, 2013]

Seeking solutions using Legos

Jan 21, 2013 (Moscow-Pullman Daily News - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- About 230 children filled Memorial Gym on Saturday racing robots and displaying Lego inventions.

This year's annual FIRST Lego League competitions asked more than 1,500 Idaho students ages 9-14 to address problems faced by senior citizens. The best north Idaho teams faced off at the University of Idaho, after five months of perfecting their inventions.

The competition has two components: a research project and a robotics project. For the research portion, students met with senior citizen mentors in their communities to find out what challenges they face in their day-to-day lives.

Lego inventions such as "foot warmers," "back comforters" and "pill dispensers" were on display in the gymnasium.

"We went to Good Samaritan's senior home and talked to them about how technology has helped them," said Aaron Michalk, father of a student in the Junior FLL. Michalk's group traveled from Post Falls to display their pill dispenser in the championship. "They created a machine that dispenses what pills they need when they need them." Although the FLL gives the children a prompt, the competition is very open to creativity, said Tim Ewers, a 4-H youth development specialist at the UI who organized the FLL event.

"We don't want to constrain them too much because we want them to drive it and use their own creativity," Ewers said. "The ideas they come up with are tremendous." The FLL program is growing, Ewers said. This year 154 teams participated statewide. Of the 61 teams in north Idaho, 37 qualified for the championship event, where loud music filled the gym and UI engineering students were dressed as referees.

"It's designed to be like a sporting event," Ewers said. "FIRST Lego League is sport for the mind. The difference between our sport and any other type of sport is that anybody can go pro. All these children could become engineers." Claudine Zender, event manager with the UI Extension 4-H, said the program is very rewarding for both the FLL children and the UI engineering faculty and students.

"The kids are learning effortlessly. They're just having fun building robots and playing games, but they're also interviewing senior citizens, defining a problem and creating a solution," Zender said.

Coaches and mentors for the FLL teams are mostly volunteers from schools, after-school programs, 4-H, clubs and home-school teams.

"This is a perfect home-school program," Zender said.

Ruth Stroup is a mother of two home-schooled children and coach of their FLL team, the Elevated Masterminds. Her son, Andrew, has participated in FLL for five years. Stroup said the program is good for home-schooled children because they get a chance to work in teams and improve their presenting skills, something she said is difficult to do when home-schooling.

"It's hard to get the teamwork component because, when you're home-schooling, everyone works at their own pace," Stroup said.

Stroup's team came from Weippe, where they spent all summer learning about programming and working with their grandmother as a senior mentor who struggles with mobility. The team then applied what they learned from their grandmother in the robotics portion of FLL, which challenged them to create a robot that could accomplish tasks associated with mobility, such as reaching high and low, flexibility and stretching.

"We purposely designed these challenges to be a lot of work because we want to create a situation in which they have to collaborate," Ewers said. "We want the children to recognize the value of teamwork." Estelle Gwinn can be reached at (208) 882-5561, ext. 301, or by email to

___ (c)2013 the Moscow-Pullman Daily News (Moscow, Idaho) Visit the Moscow-Pullman Daily News (Moscow, Idaho) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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