TOLEDO — After classes at Toledo Elementary School each week, a group of fifth and sixth graders gather to work on building and programming robots. And while they’re at it, they are trying to solve the problem of how to feed people living in space.
With young minds at full throttle, the Toledo Exploriens are hard at work preparing for the FIRST LEGO League state championships.
The league was founded in 1998 and challenges young people to find solutions to real world problems while learning about STEM and working in a spirit of inclusion and teamwork.
“It involves students programming a robot to accomplish missions, coming up with a program that will solve a problem and being able to show that they can cooperate really well with each other and work as a group,” explained Dana Spink, sixth grade teacher and co-coach of the Exploriens.
The tournaments have four components each team must complete: presenting on the league’s core values and completing an activity demonstrating those values; presenting on the team’s problem-solving project; presenting their robot and using their robot to complete missions given the day of the competition.
Though the participants do work with the Lego Mindstorms software platform to program their handcrafted Lego robots and it’s in the league’s title, Lego are not the heart of the program.
“They’re really investigating the world around them,” said Alissa Lane-Keene, a parent volunteer whose daughter is in her third year of participating. “It’s more than just programming a robot. They have these missions to complete — that’s a part of it, a big part — but they’re looking at real problems and figuring out a solution from their perspective.”
“It’s just all those 21st century skills that we’re trying to teach kids,” said Spink. “The communication, the working together, the STEM stuff that they’re doing. They’re doing amazing work.”
“All the participation is equal. They all have to come out of their comfort zone,” said Lane-Keene. “Let’s say they’re really into programming — well, guess what? Everybody has to take a minute or two of that oral presentation in front of judges.”
This year, the students are working on how to solve the issue of starvation in space. In previous years, the group’s projects have involved the topics of hydrodynamics and waste management. They are challenged to deeply research the issue — which includes a requirement to interview experts in the field — and then develop a workable solution.
“I think that having a real problem and finding a real solution to it (is the best part),” said Halli Lan-Skauge, sixth-grade member of the Exploriens. “And then experimenting with different things you can do with it.”
“I’ve learned a lot about stuff I’d never even heard of, such as cyanobacteria,” said sixth grader Aurora Fee. “I’m not a science person — seriously.”
Though they went to the state championships last year by invitation, this year the team earned their way by placing second at the qualifying tournament in the fall. Returning this year, sixth grader Daniel Roeser says it’s stressful, but there are upsides.
“Being able to go and show everybody how good we are as a team and how we work together, and just learning from it (makes the stress worth it),” said Roeser. “It feels good to win sometimes and learn a lot, but at the same time it’s just fun, in general. It’s not all about winning.”
It’s easy to imagine the pressure the Exploriens feel. A key part of the program is that it’s driven by the participants, not the coaches.
“As coaches, it’s kind of like you’re a coach at a tennis match,” said Janna Limbert, co-coach and third grade teacher. “When it comes to it, we can facilitate, we can guide, ask them questions but the kids really have to come up with the problem on their own or the project. We’re kind of just there to ask (questions) and help that.”
“For me, as a coach, the most fulfilling thing is just stepping back and letting them shine,” said Spink. “Just giving them the opportunity to come together, giving them support if they need it — but basically getting out of their way and letting them be brilliant. It always amazes me, when it comes to tournament time, how great they are and how well they do … We’re just really proud of them.”
The Exploriens will compete at the state championships the weekend of Jan. 19 at Hillsboro High School.