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Lego League challenge Jal Elementary students train for the future

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Andy Brosig/News-Sun

JAL — Imagine the scenario: Resources on Earth — from air to water to energy — are dwindling. 

A group of researchers are tasked with finding solutions with the help of robots.

That’s the challenge facing a group of fifth- and sixth-graders at Jal Elementary School as they gear up for the state Lego League finals Feb. 11 in Albuquerque. 

As the name implies, everything about the competition revolves around the ubiquitous interlocking blocks that have amused and entertained children of all ages for generations.

But these aren’t the kits you buy at toy stores. 

The international non-profit For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) sponsors Lego League programs and competitions at schools in more than 110 countries around the world. In Jal, it’s the first leg of a STEM tripod that touches virtually every student in the district.

“We realize we’re really enriched in science here in the Jal Public Schools,” said Johnny Estrada, one of the three coaches collaborating to lead the district’s Lego League team. The students get “a lot of thinking outside the box. They get into this mindset of learning what the problem is, finding a solution, then testing it and testing it again until the get done what they need.”

FIRST and Denmark-based Lego Group teamed up in 1998 to launch Lego League. The program is focused on learning while instilling the League’s “core values” — discovery, innovation, impact, inclusion, teamwork and fun — through friendly collaborative competition, according to the website firstlegoleague.org.

Lego League came to Jal during the 2018-19 school year, Estrada said. Jal Superintendent Brian Snider approached Estrada and Marcy Butts, asking if they’d be interested in adopting the League. 

They quickly said yes.

And it works this way: Each summer, teachers get a “sneak preview” of the coming year’s activities, Estrada, Butts and fellow coach Antoinette Trevino said. 

By the start of the school year, participating schools receive Lego League kits with everything they need to build “missions” — tasks or challenges students complete to earn points — as well as build the robots, all out of Lego blocks.

The tasks this year range from using their robot to push a button, which spins a windmill that charges and ejects power cells to capturing a rechargeable battery to power a second robot. The robots must accomplish tasks autonomously based solely on commands the students “code” or program into a built-in computer, Jal fifth-grader Jesslyn Estrada, 10, said.

“Learning to code was pretty hard at first,” she said. “But when we figured out how to do it we thought, ‘This is way easier than we thought it would be. We’ve got this.’”

Jesslyn and her teammates did run into some problems with their robot the first time they attempted the windmill challenge, she said — the robot wasn’t pushing hard enough to eject the power cells. But a few simple tweaks to the programing solved the problem in short order, Jesslyn said.

“We had to figure out a way to make (the robot) push with more strength in it, more force,” she said.

But the missions are only a third of the overall program, said 11-year-old sixth-grader Jessa Melancon. While some of the students work to build, program and perfect the robots, Jessa and others of her teammates focus on “innovation projects,” putting together presentations to show judges the students understand what they’ve done.

“I do the innovation project, work on a problem and solution and create a presentation,” Jessa said. “It takes a little bit to figure out where everything goes (in the presentations) and set it up.”

In the third leg of the competition, students have to be able to describe their robot in detail, from how they built it and programmed it, to how it works to accomplish its missions.

The first year of the program, Trevino, Estrada and Butts pretty much invited the entire fifth grade and a few sixth-graders to participate. 

They ended up shepherding eight, four-person teams for competition, which was “a little overwhelming,” Butts and Estrada said. Now, they’re being more discriminating when it comes to forming the teams, he said. 

One positive about Lego League scenarios is they address actual, real-world problems, Estrada said. 

Last year, for example, the over-arching theme was transportation, which students could easily relate to their home town and the constant flow of traffic around the oilfield. 

Their proposed solution ended up spurring discussion among members of the Jal City Council.

“We have a lot of traffic from the oilfield in Jal, particularly with Highway 18 and Highway 128,” Estrada said. “A couple of the kids started talking about creating a truck route. It was something simple as a project but it got the ball rolling toward ideas for the city.”

And that’s just the start of the real-world returns from Lego League and the STEM program in Jal, which carries through a second robotics curriculum at the junior high and culminates with rocketry programs at the high school, Estrada said.

“I was talking to a gentleman the other day who said, ‘Do you realize you’re teaching these kids to work for NASA?’” Estrada said. “You’re teaching them to build robots and how to send rockets into the air. 

“Eventually they’ll be the ones sending things to other planets.”

Andy Brosig’s email is reporter1@hobbsnews.com.

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