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Learning with LEGOs: Practices start Tuesday for DL’s growing LEGO League

FIRST LEGO League Coach Tom Trowbridge and his daughter Noelle work to determine whether a robot is coded correctly in order to have a successful mission. (Submitted Photo) 1 / 3
A few of last year's FIRST LEGO League team members work on code. (Submitted Photo)2 / 3
Kids from one of last year's two local FIRST LEGO League teams build a mission model. There are approximately 20 different mission models that get attached to a playing field, which is where a robot game takes place. (Submitted Photo)3 / 3

Detroit Lakes' FIRST LEGO League program is building up.

After an exploratory start last year, with two non-competitive teams, in its second year the program is being enhanced and expanded to include official league tournaments and a third local team.

Open to Detroit Lakes students in fifth and sixth grades, the FLL program is similar to the high school's robotics program, but geared to younger learners. By building a robot using LEGO MINDSTORM technology, the kids learn to apply science, technology, engineering and math concepts (STEM), plus work together and use their imaginations to solve problems.

Practices for this year's teams begin Tuesday, and at press time there was still space for about a dozen more interested students. Adult volunteers are also needed for the program.

"The idea is to get kids involved in robotics and programming at a younger age because the high school has such a strong robotics program," said Leigh Nelson-Edwards, the program coordinator for Becker County 4-H. "It's really nice to build those skills up at a younger age."

The FLL program has been incorporated into Becker County 4-H in collaboration with Detroit Lakes public schools and other financial and community partners. Kids who take part in FLL enroll as 4-H members.

"What we were trying to do was kind of bridge that gap between the elementary, middle and high school, so the kids could have the (robotics) skillset going into high school," said Jennifer Smith, the Gifted and Talented Coordinator at Rossman Elementary. "The plan is to grow the program up, so we'll just keep adding teams as those kids age up."

Smith has been instrumental in the FLL program, writing the initial grant that was crucial to getting things kicked off. That grant, from the school district's foundation, was matched by another from SJE Rhombus, and then John Deere pitched in with more support, making it possible to offer the program at no cost to participating families, according to Nelson-Edwards. 4-H was a natural partner in the effort, she said, because the LEGO League's goals for youth development align so well with the values and overarching goals of 4-H.

The FLL program "engages youth in partnerships with adults in high-quality learning opportunities," Nelson-Edwards said. "It focuses on so many different areas — STEM skills, obviously...but it also encourages problem-solving in collaboration with team members. It really grows some foundational skills in our youth. 4-H ties in well with that."

"There is a need for programs like this in Becker County," she added. "Four out of 10 students in Becker County are not involved in enrichment activities or have a connection to a caring adult."

Both Nelson-Edwards and Smith said there's a common misconception that FLL is just all about LEGO building, while in actuality there's a lot more to it than that.

Nelson-Edwards, who was also a coach for the Roosevelt team last year, said there are three essential elements of the FLL program that kids must demonstrate to judges at tournaments:

1) "Robot Design," which includes the building and programming of the robots and culminates in a table-top Robot Game competition;

2) "Project," where students design a solution to a real-word problem and then come up with a creative way to present that solution to the judges, and;

3) "Core Values," where students utilize FLL's core values of discovery, innovation, teamwork, impact, inclusion and fun.

The robot LEGO-building portion tends to get a lot of attention, Nelson-Edwards said, but that part of FLL ends as soon as the robots are built: "The program encompasses so much more than just LEGOs. LEGOs are really kind of an insignificant piece."

This will be the first year that the Detroit Lakes league will compete at official tournaments. LEGO League is an international organization and competitions happen all over the world, starting with regional competitions and then progressing on to state and national events.

"Last year was our first year, and we didn't go to any competitions," said Smith. "It was a year to explore and learn about the program. It's relatively new. It's very exciting."

FLL is considered an after-school enrichment program. Practices this year will be held from 4-6 p.m. on Tuesday evenings, across from the middle school at Grace Lutheran Church. Each FLL team is led by a coach (Guy Roberts, Tim Martin and Tom Trowbridge are this year's coaches), with help from additional parent volunteers. All volunteers must be screened and trained.

These adult coaches and volunteers offer knowledge and guidance, but the FLL program is designed to be "very student-driven," Smith said. "The ideas and the solutions and everything like that has to come from the students. The organization is very firm on that."

This year's organizational FLL theme is "Into Orbit," meaning all student projects will have something to do with outer space.

Students and parents interested in getting involved should contact Jennifer Smith at 218-847-9268 or jsmith@detlakes.k12.mn.us for more information. Students will need to complete a registration form, which may be brought to the first practice. Students will be accepted on a first-come, first-serve basis.

For more information about FIRST LEGO League, visit firstlegoleague.org.

Marie Johnson

Marie Johnson joined the Detroit Lakes Tribune as a reporter and magazine editor in November 2017 after several years of writing and editing at the Perham Focus. She lives in Detroit Lakes with her husband, Dan, their 3-year-old son and baby daughter, and their yellow Lab.

(218) 844-1452