ELKHART — Not every robot contest has a deejay.
But pumped-up tunes were a necessity on Saturday, Nov. 16, as dozens of kids gathered for the First Lego League tournament at Elkhart Memorial High School.
Thirty-six teams of kids ages 9 to 14 made this year’s event one of the biggest in the state, according to organizer Brian Boehler of ETHOS Science Center. ETHOS organizes and hosts the event with cooperation from Elkhart Schools.
The Disaster Busters team from Granger is coached by two dads, who admitted that they have just as much fun as the kids do.
“They don’t realize they are engaging in science and engineering because they are having fun,” Mark Bland, a Disaster Busters coach, said.
The five-member team is all boys, but “we’re looking for girls for next year,” Bland said.
He added, “This is our first year, so we are still learning.”
The Disaster Busters formed over the summer after the kids visited ETHOS Science Center, Bland said.
“We went to the ETHOS place and they were like, hooked,” Bland said.
Fellow dad and team coach Joshua Shrout added, “They are very excited about this.”
The excitement of every team was at top level, as many of the kids wore matching T-shirts and even elaborate costumes displaying their team colors and mottoes.
Bristol Bots, coached by former Elkhart Schools superintendent Mark Mow and Bristol Elementary School teacher Rita Walt, was no exception. The team took its turn on the practice table before competition time, and worked hard to make sure its robot was working as it should.
“This is really focused on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics),” Mow said while supervising his team. “It’s problem solving, creative thinking, and it’s teamwork.”
The biggest challenge for the Bristol Bots, Mow continued, is programming the robot.
“Getting the robot to do exactly what you want it to do on the table is a challenge,” he said.
But the challenge is worth it, especially when tournament time rolls around, said Randall Delafuente of the 10-member Eastwood Gearheads team.
“I like the experience and how it feels to be in a tournament,” Delafuente said.
The Gearheads felt “pretty good” going into Saturday’s competition, he added, but they were nervous about one of the robot’s functions.
“There’s a fifty-fifty chance it will work,” Delafuente announced.
Each of the robots was timed as it responded to a natural disaster situation. The robots climbed over obstacles, rescued family members and pets, and moved objects to a “safe zone” — all on a Lego landscape set up on a table.
Boehler, who is the robotics director at ETHOS Science Center, said that each team had the Lego landscape to practice with for the entire 10 weeks of preparation before the tournament.
He also said that interest in the annual competition has exploded.
“There have been so many people interested in robotics and what it can actually teach,” he said. “It covers STEM education and it gets kids engaged.”
ETHOS will also host a spring robotics tournament for the first time, Boehler said.