Top kids on the block

Top kids on the block

CHAMPAIGN – For eight Edison Middle School students, Legos are not just toy building blocks, they're also the means to discovering engineering robotics, computer programming and teamwork.

And they are the vehicle to a first prize at the regional FIRST Lego League Robotic Competition, held on the University of Illinois campus last Saturday.

Their win earned them a place at the state tournament in Arlington Heights in mid-January. They'll be joined by the "Bulldozing Sharks" from Urbana Middle School, "The Goatees" from Urbana, and the "Plesiosaurs" and "Ogels" of Next Generation in Champaign, in addition to three other schools of the 21 entered in the Champaign-area regional competition.

The regional competition centered on the theme of Ocean Odyssey, with each group scored on teamwork, programming and design, research presentation and ability to accomplish tasks with their robotic Legos.

Those tasks included making their Lego robots release a Lego dolphin into the ocean (a blue mat), dragging the sea floor for dumped Lego cargo from a Lego freighter and deploying a Lego submarine. All in all, a lot of Legos to build and configure.

"At the tournament they said, 'These aren't your parents' Legos,'" said Geoff Freymuth, an Edison science teacher and the school's Lego team coach.

For the seven girls and one boy on Edison's team, dubbed the "Whatchamacallits," their first-place finish was a complete surprise. The team had not won any individual categories, but placed well enough overall to qualify.

Even a few days later, the students were jumping over each others' sentences and bubbling with enthusiasm over their win.

"I thought, 'We don't have a chance,'" said Samantha Emery of her feeling as the winners were being announced.

"We just wanted to get it done," said seventh-grader Katie Klindworth of the Edison team's strategy.

They first started preparing in October, making and programming the robots.

"They kind of came together on short notice, and they've worked really hard," said Chuck Fitzgerrel, father of team member Skyler. "I've just been told to go away because they need time to work on it."

Because the team was mainly girls and minority students – both underrepresented in engineering fields – Freymuth was able to get funding from the UI College of Engineering's Office of Special Programs, by way of corporate grants from Caterpillar and Applied Mechanics. He also received funding from Unit 4's gifted and talented program.

To Freymuth, the reward is well worth the expense, and the work.

"It looks so much like a toy, but it's not," Freymuth said. "This is real engineering, this is real programming."

"It's a very good competition for kids at a critical age, 9 through 14, where a lot of them are going to decide if they're going to head into those areas: science, math," said Susan Linnemeyer, director of the UI College of Engineering's Office of Special Programs. "It's often around middle school that girls get turned off math and science and computers."

For the Whatchamacallits, the Lego competition was solid proof that engineering could be an exciting career.

"We thought it was going to be boring," said Zoe Dahl. "But it turned out to be really fun."

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