LEGO League kids compete to build robots that aid seniors

Ben Voller-Brown, 11, of the ASU Preparatory Academy team, tests the team's LEGO robot during the FIRST LEGO League robot battle at the Polytechnic campus Saturday. (Photo by Murphy Bannerman)

More than 100 children ages 9 to 14 ran around and cheered loudly while a master of ceremonies described the tasks their robots were completing.

The kids sported colorful T-shirts to represent their teams at the FIRST LEGO League qualifying tournament at the Polytechnic campus Saturday.

Four of the 18 teams that competed at the Polytechnic campus will go on to the state championship Dec. 8.

Tournament director Marc Smith said that number is based on how many teams compete at each location. Polytechnic was one of four Valley locations.

The theme of this year’s tournament was senior solutions.

“The kids talked to a senior citizen about a problem and found a way to solve it,” Smith said. “They determined how they would go about it.”

Each team had to research the problem and design a solution.

The teams presented their findings to a panel of judges throughout the morning.

They received scores based on robot design, the project and core values including cooperation, teamwork and professionalism, Smith said.

“The children are encouraged to help other teams,” he said. “They are here as much to cooperate as they are to compete.”

The teams began three rounds of robot demonstrations after their solution presentation.

The robots, built entirely out of LEGO products, were pre-programmed.

The teams had two and a half minutes to complete various missions with their robots.

Matt Thiem, who has volunteered for the last six years, said all the missions have the elderly in mind.

“The only limit is how many motors they can use,” he said. “Other than that, they can use sensors and any other LEGO products they want.”

Thiem plans to transfer to ASU from Chandler-Gilbert Community College next fall to study electrical engineering.

The children’s excitement is contagious, he said.

“It’s wonderful to see their projects as well as the robots,” he said. “The kids have been working all year for this.”

The organizers and volunteers have been preparing for the tournament for almost a year.

The state championship’s winning team will go on to compete at the FIRST LEGO League World Fest, where teams from 40 different countries meet.

Marketing and economics sophomore Kelley Gullo was this year’s volunteer coordinator.

“The children have fun, (and) they are encouraged to learn,” she said. “The big part is finding innovative solutions while working together.”

All the teams have at least one adult coach.

“The coach’s approach is very hands-off,” she said. “They keep them on track and support their ideas.”

Gullo was part of the Queen Creek robotics team while in high school and later started a nonprofit organization to help children form teams.

One of the teams Gullo helped start dubbed themselves The Eggheads.

The Eggheads are one of two Queen Creek community teams and has six members, five of whom had never participated in a Lego League.

The team developed a “bottom booster,” a pillow that helps senior citizens stand up.

The children have worked on the solution since August.

Adriana Baniecki, 9, said she was happy with the results.

“It is so exciting when you see that your mission is complete and you think, ‘Yay! It actually works,’” she said.

Their mentor, 14-year-old Danny Estrada, had some experience with robotics. His team went on to the state championship last year.

“I help them clear things up, especially if they don’t know how to program something,” he said.

The Eggheads had two adult coaches. Darcy Christianson helped them with their research and teamwork, while Steve Parkhurst guided them through the programming.

The community team formed after Christianson saw a sign at the Queen Creek Library.

The members of The Eggheads all go to different schools and did not know each other before working together.

“One of the first things we had to really work on was them getting to know each other,” Christianson said. “We even had a field trip.”

To show team spirit and cooperation, the Eggheads handed out “egg fortunes,” plastic eggs with candy and a handmade fortune that read, “Have an eggcelent day,” inside.

The Eggheads did not qualify for the state championship but plan to try again next year. Correction: An earlier version of this story gave mentor Danny Estrada's name as Danny Trujillo and mispelled Matt Thiem's name. It has been updated to reflect the correct information.

Reach the reporter at or follow her on Twitter @dpalomabp

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