At the Four Corners FIRST Lego League Robotics Tournament on Saturday, scores of young students on 18 teams, ages 9 to 14, are using computer technology in astounding ways.
Part science fair, part research project and part robot games, the FIRST Lego League challenges kids to work together outside of the classroom.
It began when a New England-based charity group, FIRST – for inspiration and recognition of science and technology – began working with Lego on a platform of kid’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Today, the league is composed of hundreds of thousands of kids in more than 70 countries.
In Durango, its home base is the Powerhouse Science Center, and the tournament director, Sarah Margoles, also is the center’s director of education.
“What’s cool about this is the kids do everything,” she said.
The tournament is a qualifier for larger competition in New Mexico next year. Although the teams are allowed coaches, the kids themselves must go through the trials and errors of designing robots, programming them, conducting research for presentations and learning to work together. They present their ideas, compete with each other, then are evaluated by judges.
Margoles, along with the Powerhouse’s curriculum instruction manager, Jen Lokey, saw a lack of girls involved. So, they decided to change that.
“We were only serving 35 percent girls in all of our education programs. That was really disheartening for us,” Margoles said.
Lokey and Margoles watched their vision come to fruition. Last year, only one all-girls team entered the tournament. This year, there were three.
Gayle Earley coaches the Mesa Verde Girl Scouts team from Cortez – WallEv3 Divided by Girl Scouts to the Power of 5 = Awesomeness.
“We have five girls that all get to experience math and engineering and teamwork. It’s incredible,” she said. “They’re so positive. They cheer each other on; they tell each other it’s OK.”
Team member Alexx Earley later would echo that statement. “Our team has very good participants, and we worked together very well,” she said.
Former science teacher Marc Masor said youth is when the magic happens.
“If you talk to anybody who loves science, something happened when they were a kid that turned them on to it,” he said.
Nineteen teams competed, from Bayfield, Telluride, Durango, Farmington and Cortez.
The girls’ teams were funded by a Women’s Foundation of Colorado grant, helping girls such as Marina Bradley of the Mesa Verde Girl Scouts team develop her interests. She said she loves science for the discovery.
“You get to have fun with it,” she said. “You get to experiment on all sorts of things – play with it discover it.”
The Girl Scouts plan to compete next year, meeting in the off-season and learning more about how the autonomous robot is programmed to navigate obstacles and perform tasks.
And if you’re wondering about that name of the Girl Scouts team, here’s an explanation from Dena Thomason: It’s a quasi-mathematical equation playing to the theme of this year’s “Learning Unleashed” theme of the robotics league. “WallEv3” is the name of their robot. “Girl Scouts to the Power of 5 denotes the five Girl Scouts on the team. And it all equals “Awesomeness.”)
The Cortez Journal contributed to this story.