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Building robots and futures: Platte County youths compete in First LEGO League competition

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Public speaking, engineering, programming and consulting may not sound like typical elementary/grade school activities, but for those in First LEGO League, it's fun.

On Jan. 14 at Columbus Middle School, 26 teams from across the Columbus area competed in the regional qualifier for the 4-H First LEGO League (FLL), between 4 and 16 years of age, in groups from two or three to up to 12 members, according to Platte County 4-H Coach Neal Faltys. His team, the LEGO Griffins, was comprised of 10.

"My team was Platte County 4-H-affiliated, but there are some schools, churches, wherever they form. We just had a meeting at 4-H and people showed up and that's where we got our team," Faltys said. 

Faltys went on to say that his group spent three hours a week for the past five months working on their projects. Ahead of the competition, they are assigned a topic, such as this year's: energy. They have to come up with some ideas around that topic and build devices to meet challenges based on that topic. They also have to give presentations on their processes of design.

"For some of our younger kids, we have some 9-year-olds in our group, this is an early public speaking opportunity and a good opportunity for them to practice," Faltys said.

Faltys added that in the process, the teams had to consult experts with questions and were shown, in accordance with this year's topic, energy production methods in the area.

"One group looked at putting solar panels on windmills to better utilize space, there were all sorts of different ideas the teams decided on," Faltys said. "Then they have to talk to industry experts in their area, we talked to the Loup hydro dam, talked to someone who works at a coal plant and they gave a virtual tour to explain how a coal plant works."

Faltys added that he was amazed that the software used to program the robots is the same basic software he used to program computers years ago, just made for LEGO applications.

Sheila Hoppe, Platte County 4-H extension educator, said the FLL activities intersect well with 4-H's "Head, heart, hands, health" credo, which is part of why 4-H is involved. Particularly, she noted, it meshes with the concept of "using my hands to build a better world."

"It teaches them to work together, teamwork, communication, hands on learning, engineering, all those things are building our better world," Hoppe said.

Humphrey St. Francis' team, The Cheezy Chads, secured a spot in the state competition at the event. Coach Tim Wiese said FLL is important because it is an activity anyone can be a part of and allows the kids to take charge on the project more.

"I have kids that are very academic and kids that are very athletic on the same team working together. I have kids that get excited to work on the robot and others that get excited to do the presentation and poster," Wiese said. "It also gets kids across multiple grades together that wouldn't necessarily hang out otherwise."

Wiese said the kids pick up several skills, both technical and nontechnical, from their time in FLL.

"They are working on their computer, public speaking and communication skills. They have to be able to keep things organized and prioritize what needs to be done. It also gets them to look beyond their little bubble and at what is going on in the world," Wiese said.

The state-level FLL competition will take place on Feb. 18 at Central Community College-Columbus. Twelve of the 26 teams that competed for regionals will go on to state.

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