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Lego tourney is all about connections

Michael McLaughlin
The Aspen Times
Albert Marquez and Cole Williams of the Longhornbots from Basalt work together during the robot challenge of the First Lego League Mountain qualifying tournament. "We're having fun," Marquez said. "That's all that really matters."
Michael McLaughlin/The Aspen Times |

Legos are such fun toys. A person can make so many different things with the snap-together pieces.

The students who took part in the Colorado First Lego League Mountain qualifier competition at Glenwood Springs High School on Saturday took their Legos to a whole new level.

Teams competing in the qualifier had approximately three months to design, build, program and test robots they made entirely from Legos. Their robots are not remote-controlled and were programmed to accomplish specific tasks in a challenge course.

The building and programming of the Lego robots is only one aspect to the First Lego League qualifier as each team also had to create and work together to solve real-world problems. The theme this year is Nature’s Fury, with teams looking at a natural disaster and working together to find solutions that could help people when such a disaster strikes.

The Longhornbots are a team of middle school students from Basalt coached by Kara and Quent Williams. They won the Mountain qualifier in 2012. Participating in the event made a strong impact on the team members.

“I find myself thinking differently now,” said 11-year-old Ben Williams. “It’s helped me realize how important teamwork is.”

Teammate Drew Olson, 13, said the event demands that teams think outside the box.

“We have a lot of different ideas as we go along,” Olson said. “It’s great when everyone on the team contributes. It also helps you learn to cooperate and be respectful of each other.”

Caroline Hanson is now in her fourth year as the director for the Mountain League First Lego qualifying tournament and fifth year as a coach at Aspen Middle School, where she also teaches. Her kids grew up playing with Legos and when she became aware of the competition, she figured, why not get some kids from the middle school involved?

In their first year competing, Hanson entered two teams from the middle school. It wasn’t an ideal day and the teams struggled at times.

“We didn’t know what we were doing,” Hanson said. “But at the end of the tournament, one of our kids told me it had been the best day of their life. I knew then that we made the right choice to compete.”

This year, of the 18 teams competing, eight came from Aspen Middle School, where Hanson has the kids excited to participate. There were also teams from Glenwood Springs, Basalt, Steamboat Springs, Carbondale and Grand Junction.

The tournament has several aspects to the scoring, with each team receiving points for the technical design of their robot, how they work as a team and project presentations. Each team is required to choose a Nature’s Fury project, which this year consists of a team selecting a natural disaster, learning about it, then coming up with a solution that can help people during such a disaster.

The most exciting part is watching the teams work their robots in a Nature’s Fury challenge course where teams get points for accomplishing tasks that they programmed their robots to complete.

“Some of these kids have never had a chance to feel the energy of a group competition,” Hanson said. “This event is similar to a sporting event. You work as a team towards a goal and feel the same drive and exhilaration like you get from sports.”

More than 170 kids were competing at the tournament on Saturday. The competition was open to kids between the ages of 9 and 14, with volunteers from Aspen High School working as judges during the robot games.

Jada Schiller is a freshman at Aspen High and spent four years in the robotics program with Hanson as her coach. She competed in the tournament in 2012 and said Hanson made it so much fun that she was eager to volunteer as a judge.

“I learned to really love robotics,” Schiller said. “Besides being fun, it’s like an intellectual sporting event.”

On Saturday, four teams qualified to advance to the Colorado state championships that will be held in Denver on Dec. 14.

The Longhornbots qualified for the second year in a row after winning the technical design and robot games. Three teams from the Aspen Middle School also qualified. The Smoke Jumpers won the teamwork competition, The Walking Disasters took second place overall, and the Technolanches were the overall points champion.

The top two teams from the state championships will advance to either the World Festival in Saint Louis next April, or the International Open Festival, which will be held at Legoland in San Diego next May.

Hanson said the event was a major success — again.

“I couldn’t be much happier,” she said. “I love to see the kids have a such a great time. They all worked so hard and put the time in to together to do their best. Everyone won today.”

mmclaughlin@aspentimes.com


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