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URBANA — When you think of 4-H competitions at county fairs, horses, cows, crops and pies probably come to mind.

Robots, not so much.

The Champaign County Fair begins Friday and runs through July 27. The robotics competition is on the afternoon of the first day. Projects will be on display until Monday in Kesler Hall.

Urbana’s Melanie Unzicker is a coach of the 10-member Cosmic Coders team. It was a completely rookie team last year — including the coaches.

But the team went to the Bloomington qualifier in December of 2018 and received the Robot Performance Award for the most points earned during the 150 seconds of table runs. It also won the Rookie Award at the same event.

And the students qualified for the Tesla State Tournament held in January at the University of Illinois, Unzicker noted.

The UI provided two student mentors: Prithiv Kumar and Ritesh Reddy.

Evan Unzicker, 12, of Urbana has mentored many of the team members on Lego’s Mindstorm programming. Agnes Nelson, 10, of Urbana was the team member who suggested the problem of solving bone-density issues for astronauts in space.

In the 4-H project expo at the fair, Melanie Unzicker said, the team and some of the individual members will be presenting their “EV3 workbooks,” a code they programmed into the robot, learned over the course of the 4-H program in July and August last year.

Judges look at all the learning that has taken place during the 4-H year. According to UI Extension, 4-H members are more likely than other young people to see science as exciting. And they are twice as likely to say they’re “good at” it than other pupils their age.

Grace Ahrens, 10, of Champaign said team-building is what it’s all about.

“We bring together different attachments to complete the machines,” she said. “We learn to problem-solve together.”

A grant from John Deere helped make it happen. A central part of their robots are Lego EV3 Mindstorm kits.

The team, all of whose members are home-schooled, also received support from the newly formed nonprofit Homeschool STEAM Alliance, Unzicker said.

The alliance sent four teams (three from high school and one from junior high) all the way to the national Rube Goldberg Machine Contest tournament.

That contest asks participants to make a task as inefficient as possible. All four teams advanced to the finals in Lawrenceburg, Ind., with cleverly dumb inventions.

Miles Remenji, 12, of Champaign is on both of those teams. He said one of the Lego mission models was to launch a shuttle using light and touch sensors.

They’re also programmed to dance.

If they bump into something, said Ingrid Nelson, 12, of Urbana, they have a special program. They say, “sorry, game over.”

“And then they laugh,” she said.

Cages go on top of the central robot to perform different tasks, said Eiralys Unzicker, 10.

FIRST LEGO League teams can have up to 10 members. They learn to apply science, engineering and math concepts, as well as imagination, to develop solutions to real-world challenges with the robots they code.

Lydia Heren, 10, of Champaign already knows how to code. Besides computer coding, she even has a “Lego coding” sequence.

The two of the robots that will compete at the Champaign County are Pickles and Black Ops.

Charlotte Powell, 9, of rural Ogden has high hopes for them since the team has learned to work well together. Her sister Addison, 12, said it’s more fun to solve problems with friends than by yourself.


Paul Wood is a reporter at The News-Gazette. His email is, and you can follow him on Twitter (@pvawood).