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COLUMBUS - Julie Kreikemeier doesn’t have any problem admitting that a few of her robotics students might have a better grasp of some of the technology involved in making the creations move about the gaming field than she does.

On Saturday, the Colfax County 4-H youth development coordinator was surrounded by her two, six-person teams comprised of students ranging from 8-13 years old. All were present to participate in the FIRST Lego League competition being held inside of Columbus Middle School.

“All the time, all the time,” Kreikemeier said of how often she’s amazed by her pupils’ ingenuity and creativity. “I feel like I have a pretty basic understanding of this in order to coach and teach it, but then I’ll have one (student) that comes in and just gets it and blows me out of the water – teaches me things. They call me coach but that’s not really what it is, because I learn just as much from them as they learn from me.”

FIRST Lego league challenges students to apply science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills to solve problems. There are two main parts of each robotics competition: a research project and building a programmable robot using Lego bricks. Both aspects are subject to judging.

The ability to integrate a tech-savvy component into an already booming 4-H operation has opened new doors for Nebraska’s 4-H programs to recruit and retain some students that might not otherwise show interest.

“Honestly, most of our 4-H robotics teams are not kids who would have been enrolled in 4-H otherwise,” said Jill Goedeken, extension/youth 4-H development coordinator in Platte County, who helped coordinate the event.

Several students participating in the festivities came from Columbus, Albion, Fullerton, Humphrey, Richland and Schuyler. Kreikemeier said that her teams have been preparing since around August 2018. All of the practice and hard work enabled her team to learn important principles and skills that will stick with them moving forward, she said.

“It is one of the best advantages they have now a days,” she said of the STEM opportunities. “What we do every week in 4-H robotics applies directly to what they are learning in the classroom, except it’s in a more fun, hands-on, engaging way. So they are learning the same science and math principles that their teachers are teaching them, but it’s a little more fun when you get to put Legos together and power it around as a robot instead of trying to do it as a work sheet.”

Goedeken said that Saturday’s competition is the largest-scale competition that’s been hosted in Platte County during the four years it has been affiliated with 4-H robotics. Forty teams were registered for the competition, which officially kicked off Saturday afternoon.

One Colfax County competitor who was anxious to get competing Saturday morning was Wyatt Kluck. The 13-year-old Richland native, who said it’s his third time competing, said that while building and programming robots is fun, one of his favorite aspects of the hobby is surrounding himself around good-natured people.

“It’s really nice to have a competition where people are going to respect you and you don’t have to worry about people being rude,” Wyatt said. “If you drop something people will pick it up for you, people will find you if they know someone is looking for you – everyone’s just real nice.”

But in addition to surrounding himself with good people, Wyatt said he also loves the technical component of robotics. Building the Lego creations and programming its movement is thrilling for the Richland Elementary student.

It’s a passion he hopes to never let die.

“I learned a lot more about the programming side of it this year, and I’m actually pretty confident about it,” he said. “ … It actually seems like it could be a really good profession that I could go into.”

Sam Pimper is the news editor of the Schuyler Sun. Reach him via email at sam.pimper@lee.net.

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