Building Their Brains

local team makes it to state Lego robotics competition

Ross Lindquist, photos by Andrea Paulseth

Members of the Eau Claire-based Lego robotics team The Brain Builders watch as their robot tries to grab and drag a truck. Later this month, the elementary-aged team will be competing against middle schoolers at this year’s state competition. They’ll be graded on the construction of their robot, as well as the character of their team.
Members of the Eau Claire-based Lego robotics team The Brain Builders watch as their robot tries to grab and drag a truck. Later this month, the elementary-aged team will be competing against middle schoolers at this year’s state competition. They’ll be graded on the construction of their robot, as well as the character of their team.

While it is frightfully cold outside, the house is warmed with a wood fire and the pent-up energy of eight kids who are excited to help their team. A giant Lego table takes up half a room and posters of goals and objectives plaster the walls. Some kids immediately get to work on the robot, while others create thank-you cards for the other teams they will be competing against.

Whatever kids’ strength are, there is a role for them on this team. From noon to five on Sundays teammates from four Eau Claire elementary schools get together to practice. The Brain Builders are part of the FIRST LEGO League, a worldwide organization that puts on a Lego robotics competition annually. These kids have so much energy this year because their third-place finish in the regional competition at UW-Stout earned them a trip to the state competition in Appleton.

Those who think this is purely an exercise in math and science couldn’t be further from the truth. “I think it’s important that they are expected to not only be challenged in math and science, but other disciplines as well,” said Angie Stokes, an Eau Claire school district teacher their adult captain. The team is also graded on the construction of their robot, the community and character of their team, and team building. Obviously this team is learning about electronics, computers, and architecture skills, but that is only a small part of the whole equation.  

Every year the FIRST LEGO League has a theme all the competitors must adhere to. This year’s theme is natural disasters. The boys chose the specific disaster of an avalanche. Their robot completes such goals as releasing a helicopter, toppling a hazardous building, rescuing people, and trying to pick up and drag a truck. Their robot isn’t remotely controlled or guided by hands; it works completely off of programming that the kids have worked in.

Another aspect of the FIRST LEGO League is that a team must spread awareness about the natural disaster they have chosen. The boys did research by emailing the superintendent of Rocky Mountain National Park. They then created brochures, which they handed out at Scheel’s, and wrote a skit to show how to prepare oneself for such a disaster. This skit will be performed at their competition.

If this feat wasn’t impressive enough, keep in mind that many of the students in The Brain Builders are competing against are middle schoolers, while The Brain Builders are made up of entirely elementary-agec kids. Many of the boys have competed for multiple years, but this will be their trip to state.

The Brain Builders have three adults that help with their team; two specifically help with building the robot and writing the programming, while Stokes heads up the whole team.

Word is spreading about the Brain Builders and FIRST LEGO League here in Eau Claire. “We actually have a waiting list of kids that would like to be on our team,” Stokes said. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough parents and adult volunteers to create more groups. “While there is a significant time commitment, seeing these kids having fun and truly learning is more than worth it,” Angie said.

The kids acknowledge that Brain Builders is a lot of work, but say they wouldn’t trade it for anything. “My parents have trouble getting me away from Legos and off to basketball practice,” said one Brain Builder. Clearly something very cool is happening on this team.

It is clear that true friendships have formed between these kids. At the regional competition, the team was asked to bench two members of the group as a test of their character and two Brain Builders volunteered right away. For this group, going to state is a great accomplishment, but being a part of a fun group of friends is what they are really proud of. One of their mottos says it all: “No one achieves success without the help of others.”

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