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Iowa State University Extension

4-H’ers become future scientists with robots and FIRST LEGO League

FIRST LEGO League kids

Maybe it’s the mascots and research presentations that make the FIRST LEGO League (FLL) unique. Or maybe it’s the competing 4H’er-built robots. In any case, says ISU Extension program specialist Holly Bignall, “If you’re interested in robots or programming, if you just want to work with a team or if you want to help in the community, you can find a niche.” And you just might help create a future scientist.

The international program involves more than 100,200 kids worldwide and engages them in problem solving, teamwork and learning through competition. In September a challenge is released. Teams of 9- to 14-year-olds begin building their robots, programming their missions and researching topics related to the theme. In January, the teams compete against each other at the state level and are judged on teamwork, the robotic missions, a presentation of their research project and an interview about their robot’s technical design.

In Iowa, interest has increased dramatically. Last year FLL hosted a 70-team tournament and had 21 teams on the waiting list. This year, with the theme of “Climate Connections,” 145 teams competed at six regional competitions, with 72 advancing to the state competition on the ISU campus Jan. 17. Included in the mix are an increasing number of 4-H groups and clubs who have found support from ISU Extension, parents, community members and businesses who see the benefits FLL offers.

“Kids are used to seeing the winning steer, the winning rabbit or the restored rocker or tractor, but this is a whole different interaction, and it’s exciting,” said 4-H youth development field specialist David Seilstad, who is working with three teams from Harrison County. “They are learning life skills, teamwork, communication, citizenship and leadership, which are all tied in to what we have to do to compete in FLL, just like 4-H.”

Bignall sees FLL as an opportunity to pursue the new 4-H science, engineering and technology (SET) mission mandate. Unveiled in summer 2008, 4-H SET’s goal is to increase youth interest in these growing fields using the slogan, “One Million New Scientists. One Million New Ideas.”

Added Seilstad, “When kids come away on fire and see themselves as more capable and excited about what they can learn, we call it a very successful day.”

This article appeared in January 2009 -- From Jack Payne Newsletter