Legos are more than just colorful building bricks. They also fuel competition.
Just ask the 1,700 Minnesota kids who square off every year in the First Lego League, which pits teams of middle-school students against each other as they design and build Lego robots and program them to perform assigned tasks.
"It's a hands-on experience in science and technology that makes them realize, 'Hey, this is kind of fun,' " said Fred Rose, executive director of INSciTE Minnesota, which runs the state league.
"This is when you have an impact on kids," Rose said. "I want them to realize that math and science isn't boring."
Every September, the First Lego League unveils a challenge to teams across the globe. Competitors have eight weeks before regional competitions to build, program and refine a robot that can complete multiple missions. Teams also have to complete a research project on a global issue, with the research and robot missions fitting the same theme.
This year's challenge was "Ocean Odyssey," in which students had to create an innovative solution to ocean destruction in addition to building and programming their robots.
Each team has to share their findings with their school or community. Tha Qru, a group of five eighth- and ninth-graders from Woodbury's Math and Science Academy, created a Web site and used their school's magazine to share their solution to coral reef destruction.
Their "clean reef habitat" is an artificial reef ball that has a water-filtration system inside. It's powered by an underwater turbine that runs slowly enough not to harm fish and other reef inhabitants.
Tha Qru has spent about 100 hours on this year's challenge, working every Monday and Thursday and occasionally on weekends.
"There's always endless tweaking we have to do," said team member Andrew Lilja. "It's problem after problem after problem."
Now the team is fine-tuning the robot and its programs before it heads to the Open European Championships in the Netherlands. It is one of six teams representing the United States in the global contest in May.
During competitions, teams have 2.5 minutes to have their robots perform as many tasks as possible. Robots are programmed and, once initiated, must run on their own and cannot be touched during the competition.
At a recent practice, Tha Qru's robot set out to repair a model of a fractured oil pipeline, moving a few feet on a table and using its arm to pick up a separated section and place it back in position. On another task, the robot maneuvered itself to another area on the table and smacked a Lego shark away from three surrounding fish — without touching the fish.
Teams are judged on programming, teamwork, the design of their robot and the quality of their research project. Judges also pepper the kids with questions about their research. The intense experience teaches students to think on their feet, speak in front of an audience and work as a team.
"They're really cool under pressure," said Sarah Lilja, one of Tha Qru's coaches. "It's not something kids their age get exposed to often."
Tha Qru isn't the only local team headed to a bigger competition. The BotZealots, eight home-schooled students from the Chisago-Forest Lake area who captured their third straight state championship this year, are going to Atlanta this weekend to compete in the league's World Festival.
For their research, the BotZealots looked at how excess nitrogen and phosphorus in stormwater runoff in Minnesota affects the Gulf of Mexico.
They found the chemicals flow down the Mississippi River and produce algae blooms in an area of the Gulf called the "Dead Zone." It's about the size of New Jersey and has no marine life because the algae cut off the oxygen supply. The BotZealots then found ways Minnesota residents can reduce runoff.
Arlo Siemsen, a 14-year-old from Chisago City, got hooked on Lego robotics several years ago when he saw a demonstration at the State Fair. He decided to get some of his friends together to form a team.
"It's fun," Arlo said. "I like getting to work on a project and problem-solving with my friends. Plus, I like the computer programming."
Minnesota's league started in 1999 with 12 teams, and about 250 teams competed this year.
Rose, whose full-time job is at Honeywell as a global technology strategy manager, said students learn problem-solving and scientific skills that can be used later in life.
"Whatever they end up doing as adults, they'll have to be highly technical and computer literate," Rose said.
Megan Boldt covers education, including Washington County schools and the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale school district. She can be reached at email@example.com or 651-228-5495.
MINNESOTA'S Lego LEADERS
• BotZealots, a team of home-schooled students from the Chisago-Forest Lake area: Logan Enright, Caleb Genheimer, Elijah Genheimer, Miriam Genheimer, Danielle Nielsen, Joshua Nielsen, Arlo Siemsen and Nel Siemsen. Visit http://www.botzealots.org/ to find out more about their project.
• Tha Qru from the Math and Science Academy in Woodbury: Andrew Lilja, Cody Robb, Noah Trebesch, Brian Wilkins and Peter Young. Visit http://xrl.us/dyingoceans for more on their project.
For more information about the First Lego League in Minnesota, visit http://www.hightechkids.org/.