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Youngsters from across Utah proved that playing with Legos is anything but a mindless activity.

About 560 students, ages 9-14, worked for months to build and program robots using computers and LEGO blocks. They put to the test their creations Saturday at the inaugural Utah FIRST LEGO League Championship at the University of Utah.

"It sounded nerdy, and I love to play with LEGOs," said Mekenzie Davies, a sixth-grader at Taylorsville's Fremont Elementary, explaining the appeal.

Hoping to inspire a "culture of innovation," the university's department of Technology Venture Development (Tech Ventures), hosted the event. The FIRST LEGO League has been a hit in other states, but Saturday was the first chance for scientific-minded Utah kids to show off their robo-knowledge in a competitive setting.

"We believe kids are as bright and creative as any adult is,," said Kathy Hajeb, director of the university's Tech Ventures department. "And, oh my goodness, these kids have got the best ideas, the best creative problem-solving skills. All of this is open-ended problem-solving. No one tells them what to do."

The up-and-coming scientists, working in teams of 10, programmed their robots to complete tasks related to the theme: bioengineering. The colorful, individually unique robots scurried across a playing surface while team members watched expectantly, hoping their brainchildren would correctly patch a hole in a "heart" and install a "pacemaker," among other missions. They giggled or threw up their arms in triumph when they were successful.

"I would've loved to do this if I were their age," said Mark Hall, a dad and coach of the Robo Newbies, a team made up of neighborhood kids who attend Hawthorne and Whittier elementary schools in Salt Lake City.

Last year, Tech Ventures held an unofficial scrimmage to prepare for this year's event. Hall took his daughter Jackie to watch.

"It was a tiny affair with eight teams, and it just looked like it was such a blast," Hall said.

They formed a team, and despite their self-proclaimed novice status, the Robo Newbies won the Robot Game, besting 55 other robots.

Amy Butler, a mom and co-coach of the Sandy-based LEGO Maniacs, said her kids already adore LEGOs. The Utah FIRST LEGO League provided a perfect chance to take LEGOs "to the next level."

"It kind of blew their minds, to be honest," Butler said. "I mean, they've played with Legos and put stuff together, but to build a robot out of them and see what can happen was something they had never encountered."

Morgan Selph, a dad and coach of the Mega Nano Microchips, a team made up of 4H members from throughout Salt Lake County, said the league allows non-sporty kids to glean lessons often learned in athletics.

"It's not your typical sports-oriented program," he said. "Competition, cooperation, teamwork. All those things that are typically found in sports is now found in an engineering-based [contest]."

Teams were coached by teachers, parents, and people from the community, including Josh Langston, an engineer at Hill Air Force Base, who co-coached a group from Hill Field Elementary School for five months leading up to the big event.

"My oldest kid is 6 years old, so I'm not around kids this age very often," Langston said. "To be able to see the things they came up with really surprised me. It's pretty amazing."

Nicole Suwinski, whose child is a member of the Taylorsville-based Fremont RoboLeaders, said it was fun to watch the team produce under pressure.

"They made me tear up today," she said. "They changed everything at the last minute. I wouldn't have changed anything, but they were confident, and it paid off. It was awesome. They were so proud of each other."

In addition to designing robots, students were required to give a presentation about a bioengineering-themed topic.

Students from Eastwood Elementary in Millcreek studied the eye for their submission. They dissected cow eyeballs, visited the Moran Eye Center, and named their robot "Retinas."

Teams won awards for their robots, their presentations, teamwork, and more.

This year, an estimated 171,000 children worldwide will participate in FIRST LEGO League activities. Hajeb expects the number of Utah participants to grow exponentially during the next few years, from 560 to as many as 5,000 students. —

Utah FIRST LEGO League Championship Results


First place • Pi Pod (home school, Sandy)

Second place • Mobilius (Sandy)

Robot Awards

Robot Game • Robo Newbies (neighborhood group, Salt Lake City)

Innovation & Strategy • Park City LEGO Miners (neighborhood group)

Programming • Robo Warriors (Wasatch Junior High, Millcreek)

Mechanical Design • Artificial Intelligence (Hillside Middle School, Salt Lake City)

Overall Robot • Lady Bots (Girl Scout Team Troop 442, Park City)

Project Awards

Research • Eight Little Einsteins (Whiteside Elementary sixth-grade, Layton)

Innovative Solution • Bananabots (Madeleine Choir School, Salt Lake City)

Presentation • Flash Bots (IMFT, Lehi)

Overall Project • Cyborgs (Holbrook Elementary, Bountiful)

Core Values Awards

Inspiration • The Blockheads (Girl Scouts, Salt Lake City)

Teamwork • Robotics Elevated (West High ELP Program, Salt Lake City)

Gracious Professionalism • Bone Smashing Hovering Robot Chickens (4H, Draper)

Overall Core Values • Brainy LEGO Researchers (Boart Longyear, Sandy)