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A Lego League of their own
by Jacob Lane · December 11, 2013

When school lets out most students go home. They play, they do chores, they finish their homework, they have supper, they take a bath. It's all normal.

But there's a certain group of students with other priorities. They play with Legos.

When school lets out they head to the band room at the elementary building. They're part of the First Lego League, a yearly competition that challenges students to program Lego robots to handle a series of challenges.

This year two team's of 9 to 14-year-old students from West Liberty will compete in Cedar Valley on Dec. 14 in a series of pre-ordained tasks. The more their robot can do on game day, the more points they'll get.

This year's competition theme revolves around natural disasters. WL students have programed their robots from the ground up to deal with tiny mock Lego challenges inspired by earthquakes, tsunamis and more.

"I really like the programing," said team member Cooper Lovell, age 11. "It's fun to do stuff on the computer and see it in action. When you do homework you get stuff done, but you don't get to see it in action."

Unlike most homework, the First Lego League wraps group participation, problem solving, communication, computer programming and Legos into a single experience. WL students have spent around 16 hours after school developing their craft.

The competition requires a presentation, an interview and two sets of 2-minute periods for teams to rack up points with their robots. Around 40-50 teams will compete in Cedar Falls this year, winners will head to a statewide competition.

However, volunteer coach Lynne Zeman leads both groups in order to teach skills, not win competitions. "It's about having a good experience and having a blast," she said. "We take anyone who wants to join."

Marcus Feik, 9, joined the group because he wanted to fix things. "I thought it would be fun," he said. "I like building Legos, and sometimes when things are broken I like fixing them."

Evren Sasmazer, 11, on his third year in the league, participates for the engineering opportunities and challenges.

"I enjoy the education and engineering benefits that come out of it," he said. "A lot of that stems from my dad being an engineer."

Basically, each team of 8-10 students is given a level playing field with several tasks to do. The team makes one robot to handle as many tasks as possible. Of course, everything involves Legos one way or the other.

First Lego League competitions happens in the fall. Beforehand, students continually perfect their robots abilities. A long and somewhat tedious process, but a good learning experience.

"It's teaching them to work as groups," said Coach Zeman. "You go through a long term process of trying over and over again, so they learn long term skills."

One particular challenge to earn points requires the robot to travel over large obstacles. The students were ecstatic when their robot finally made it over three bumps in the road for the first time during practice.

After a short celebration, they turned around and started prepping the device to do even more.

With the competition in less than a week, both West Liberty groups are putting the final touches in their robots. After all, it's time for them to get serious about playing with Legos.

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