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“The Watchers” is a film adaptation of the 2022 book of the same name by A.M. Shine.
Review: “The Watchers”
Published June 13, 2024

Middle-schoolers make robots out of LEGOs

More than 3,000 students participated in the FIRST LEGO League competition.

Crowds cheered and whistled as the clock was running out in Williams Arena this weekend. But there weren’t any towering basketball players out on the court – instead, LEGO robots and their operators filled the floor.

More than 3,000 middle school students from around the world gathered at the University this past weekend for the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) LEGO League international competition, for which students are given a real-world problem scenario facing scientists today.

They built a robot to perform certain mechanical missions related to the topic, and also do research to propose a technological solution to an aspect of the challenge.

The robots performed tasks like moving tiny wind turbines and placing solar panels on the roofs of miniature houses.

The event gave teams about a dozen missions to complete in two and a half minutes while trying not to be distracted by another team’s successes or failures.

“In the competitive aspect, like sport of the mind, (the kids) see it as more real,” Colleen Sauter, co-organizer of the competition, said.

Students followed the renewable energy theme beyond their robots, researching energy use and potential improvements in their own communities’ town halls and libraries.

Sixth-grader Victoria Petta said her robotics team visited a nuclear power plant and a wind turbine plant during their research.

The team, from Fort Worth, Texas, visited one company and found it could save $1,700 a year by switching up its light bulbs watt usage.

“We came up with recommendations for renewable energy,” Petta said. “We thought about recommendations in the company’s price range.”

Another team, from Elk River, matched up a company creating green roofs with their county library, potentially saving the library thousands of dollars a year in energy costs.

“Time and time again, these 8- and 10-year-old kids continue to astound me,” Dan Carlson, a referee whose company, 3M, helped sponsor the event, said.

One team came all the way from Colombia for the competition, their first time using Legos.

Through translator Monica Sanchez, three of the girls said they had been researching the use of biomass to create methane and run a turbine, therefore creating electricity.

The international teams, from eight countries, including Mexico, Germany, Israel and Iceland, worked with U.S. children, developing lessons in not only technology and renewable energy, but also in cultural and language boundaries.

“The way of the future is international teams,” Sauter said.

She said continued research shows engaging students in science and technology at a young age, and not in a lecture hall, improves their chances of continuing that interest.

Sauter said kids that age understand what doctors and lawyers do, but the competition helps them understand what purpose engineers and scientists serve.

“You go up to (the kids) and they’re having so much fun,” Carlson said. “You say ‘How would you like to get paid for this?’ and their eyes just light up.”

Parents and coaches kept out of the robot building and energy research, only serving a supporting role. When the kids were struggling for a solution and had a question, parents learned to only respond with another question.

“It’s fun to watch them think,” coach and parent Steve Nordahl said. “You see a kind of a light bulb go off in their head when they figure out a solution.”

The kids spent some time running around “the pit” – or the Sports Pavilion – in between competitions, sporting Jedi capes, “Men in Black” suits and eating pizza, assuring everyone they were still a bunch of 10-year-olds.

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