After months of work and dozens of hours spent designing, constructing and programming robots, kids from across the middle of the state showed off their skills Saturday.
Six teams from central South Dakota competed in the inaugural regional FIRST LEGO League competition held at T.F. Riggs High School in Pierre.
Three of those teams, the McIntosh Ligers, Pierre Techno Kids and the Stanley County Gold, will advance to a state tournament to be held February in Sioux Falls.
FIRST LEGO League is a competition for children ages 9 through 14. It requires them to construct a robot out of LEGO parts and solve a series of problems.
Teams are judged in four categories split into two areas. The first area covers robot design and how well they perform. The second focuses on problem solving and teamwork, through a prepared presentation on a given topic and how teams solve impromptu problems given at the tournament.
FIRST Lego League has been in South Dakota for six years, but this is the first year for regional competitions, as the proliferation of teams has made it impractical to hold one giant competition at the state level.
Preparing for the tournament has been hard work for all the teams involved. Each spent anywhere from 40 to 100 hours building and programming robots to carry out basic tasks, while simultaneously preparing their presentation on “senior solutions” or how technology can help an aging population.
Frank Hines, a member of the Huron Techno Gadgets, said his team has been working on their robot almost constantly since September. While he originally got into it just to hang out with friends last year, he said he stuck with it because it’s challenging.
“You don’t want to quit after your first year,” Hines said.
Zane Wilson, a member of the Stanley County Gold team, said both the robots and their programming had to be constantly built, run, deconstructed and redesigned in order to work.
Hannah Becker, a member of the Pierre Techno Kids, said, even though her team is advancing to the next level, there is much more work to do before heading to the state tournament.
“(Programmable) missions are what we need to work on and getting more gears for the robot,” she said.
James Kruz, coach of the team from White River, said, despite only one of his team being able to make it to the tournament, coming was instructive for the relatively new program.
“It was a good experience for us to come up and see what we need to be competitive,” he said.
But FIRST LEGO League is about more than hard work, the thrill of competing or building robots.
Kruz said the program teaches critical thinking skills and, through the presentation, how to conduct research.
Brian Wieczorek, a co-coach for the Stanley County Gold team, said the competition stresses teamwork, patience and prioritizing. He’s especially impressed that participants are encouraged to show “coopetition,” or cooperation even while competing.
The best example of this is teams freely sharing spare parts to help improve each other’s robots, he said.
Diana Melvin, the event coordinator for the competition, said the kids are learning valuable STEM skills and opening their minds to new possibilities. After all, programming robots is a high-tech thing, she said.
“To think you have 9- to 14-year-olds programming them is incredible,” Melvin said.