Legos leap to life

Youth to battle food contamination issues with robots in fifth annual contest By SARAH DAY

Youth in Southeast Alaska will be competing Saturday at Centennial Hall with FIRST Lego League robots and working with the theme “Food Factor.”


The challenge, issued Sept. 2, has students researching ways food can become contaminated and proposing solutions. They have been building Lego Mindstorms robots as part of the project.

“It’s about food safety and looking at how food gets contaminated that can prevent things like salmonella and related illnesses,” said Becca Parks, Juneau Economic Development Council STEM SpringBoard education specialist.

What the youth will do on Saturday for the robot portion of the competition is face scenarios like cleaning up tiny Legos representing bacteria and disease with their robots and placing storage thermometers and setting cooking timers to the correct zones — among other scenarios that are linked to food-born illness.

“The robot missions, it’s just a thematic connection,” Parks said. “They’re not real robots that will solve food safety problems.”

Parks said the program is designed so it can be localized. Students from around the globe participate with the same theme, but lessons revolve around localized situations.

The theme changes every year — last year it was health care, transportation the year prior and biotechnology another year.

“(These projects use) creative thinking and entrepreneurship that we really need to keep things growing, to keep the economy growing,” Parks said.

Students from 19 teams and six Southeast communities will start competing at 9 a.m. Saturday at Centennial Hall in the fifth annual Robot Jamboree. Ten of those teams are from Juneau (one at Floyd Dryden Middle School, one at Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School, one at Glacier Valley Elementary School, two at Riverbend Elementary, two Girl Scout teams, two community teams and one at Gastineau Elementary School). The event is for upper elementary and middle-school students — ages 9-14.

“In the morning each team will go to three judging sessions,” Parks explained. “Those aren’t open to the public. The kids go in and present to a panel of judges. They will present on core values, have an on-the-spot challenge they have to work together to solve. That’s built into the program as the life skills, employability skills.”

The second portion of the morning events includes a robot design interview, where teams talk about their creation. Parks said they don’t want to create engineers who make their invention and then close themselves off and can’t communicate their design to others. The third portion of the morning competition is project presentation. Five minutes will be given for explanation of the entire project and five minutes for Q&A.

The afternoon portion of the competition is when the doors open to the public and cheering on of teams is most welcome for the robot matches.

“There will be two teams at a time and they have 2 1/2 minutes to get as many points as they can,” Parks said. “... It’s just exciting to see them work, problem solving on their feet. They can win for robot performance, it’s the fourth scored aspect.”

The public can watch the competition between 12:30-3 p.m.

Approximately 1,500 students in Alaska participate in FIRST Lego League, with 250 in Southeast Alaska — 171,000 participate worldwide.

Last year 22 teams participated in Juneau’s event. Parks said this year 26 teams are registered, but several either can’t make it or aren’t ready for the tournament. She said the event has been growing steadily since it’s inception five years ago with 12 teams and only two communities participating. Parks said one of the biggest limiting factors is finding coaches for the teams, since coaching a Lego League team takes a lot of time. She said that if there were enough coaches Juneau would likely have a team for each elementary and middle school.

Saturday’s event is a qualifier for further competitions — one of eight in the state. There are 148 teams in Alaska. Those who qualify on Saturday will get to go to Anchorage Jan. 21 for the Anchorage Robot Rendezvous. The winner from the Anchorage invitational will get to go to either the U.S. Open, which is at Lego Land in San Diego, or to the International Open, which is in Germany this year. There also is one more opportunity for further competition — with a championship event in Tanana Valley on Feb. 4. The winner of that competition would get to go to the World Championship in St. Louis. That event is open to students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Team listings and tournament schedules can be found at

• Contact reporter Sarah Day at 523-2279 or at


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