It wasn't always easy for Yoalli Nicholas to be the only girl on her Lego robotics team.
"I'm more comfortable around girls, and usually I'm really shy," said the dark-haired 11-year-old from Lehi. But during the roughly two months of building and programming the robot with about 10 boys, she learned to speak up and pitch in.
On Saturday, Yoalli cheered with the rest of the FLASH-tronics as the robot drove onto a raised platform for a perfect finish and 65 points at the Utah First Lego League Championship.
The best part, said 13-year-old teammate Chandler Golden, is "when you see it work."
The FLASH-tronics, a neighborhood team from Lehi, were one of 48 teams competing to be state champs in the league. Each team programmed its robot and then sent it through a series of maneuvers on a tabletop game board. The more actions correctly completed, like moving balls or small flags, the more points the team earned. Along with the robot, each team created a device designed to help senior citizens and was judged on core values such as teamwork.
Saturday's showdown came after a series of regional competitions, which started in November and whittled down the contenders from 125.
Between 2,000 and 3,000 kids packed the University of Utah student union building Saturday, according to organizers, shuttling between practice areas, competition boards and judging rooms. The atmosphere was festive, with pop music playing and some attendees wearing Star Wars, Lego man or Harry Potter costumes, while others donned wigs and capes.
The all-girl Beatbots stood out in their Day-Glo yellow T-shirts worn with matching rainbow leg warmers and suspenders. The team members from Westfield Elementary named their robot Wolf and developed a series of cheers for daily scrimmages with competing squads from their Alpine school.
"There's passion in my robot, and I'm not afraid to show it," they sung to the tune of a popular LMFAO song as their little Lego gray robot wheeled across the board. The robots, made from Lego Mindstorm sets, are fully automated, controlled by computer programs downloaded to a small, electronic box attached to the structure.
The programming and engineering worlds might seem male-dominated to some, but not the Beatbots.
"It's for girls, too," said 11-year-old Daniela Aaron.
"We think we're just as good," said Claire Reynolds, also 11.
As they analyzed their performance in the last round, another team, based at the charter school Salt Lake Center for Science Education, practiced with its robot in the next room over.
"We're trying to make sure everything is clean," said Jack Mismash, 12. Each team runs through the course for the allotted 2½ minutes three times, giving the kids a chance to correct errors in between rounds.
Their team, The Fibonaccis, created a "passive exercise machine" from an old bicycle and motorcycle pattern for a Senior Solutions project, then made an infomercial to go with it.
"We included everyone's opinion," said 12-year-old Evan Cutler.
The league, for kids ages 9 to 13, began three years ago in Utah. Teams spend various lengths of time preparing their robots and projects. Team Robo Thunder, which won the top prize, spent 11 months working on its robot twice a week and nearly every night as the competition drew near, said Damon Cox, whose son Paul has been on the Park City team for three years.
"Teamwork, dedication, work ethic, and they have fun," Damon Cox said. "Some kids play football, these kids do robotics."
1st • Robo Thunder, Park City
2nd • Skeleton Crew, Salt Lake City
Core Value Awards
Inspiration • Beat Bots, Alpine
Teamwork • Beanie Bunch!, West Jordan
Gracious Professionalism • Mandroids, Provo
Mechanical Design • P.C. LEGO Miners, Park City
Programming • Master Builders, Pleasant Grove
Strategy and Innovation • Grid Skippers, Lehi
Robot Performance • Grid Skippers, Lehi
Research • Avengers of the Aged, Layton
Innovative Solution • Bionic Life Aid, Salt Lake City
Presentation • Jedis, South Jordan
Source: Technology Venture Development, University of Utah