This is what happens when curiosity meets creativity.
On Thursday afternoon at Gig Harbor Academy, 13 students bustled around JoAnn Johnson’s first-grade classroom, putting finishing touches on poster boards, busily typing on laptops and working with LEGOs.
It may be fun, but it’s hardly a game.
This is the Junior FIRST LEGO League, which provides children ages 6-9 hands-on opportunities to get excited about science, technology and engineering. Each team of students in kindergarten through third grade builds, tests and programs a robot and then competes against other teams from around the region that are working on the same type of projects.
“The cool thing about this age group is that it’s not really a competition – it’s more of an expo,” said Johnson, the school’s adviser. “The kids set up and show off their projects and the judges will ask them who did this and that, and if it was a team effort, and then all of the science and math questions that go along with it.
“And at the end, when they do the awards, everyone gets a participation ribbon.”
The fall 2011 event will be held Saturday at Coe Elementary School in Seattle, which meant that Thursday was the 11th hour for Johnson’s students. With no school today, they split their time between wrapping up their projects and then loading them into her car.
“This is the most organized it has been for the Junior FIRST LEGO League,” Johnson said. “We have usually been a tacked-on event to the FIRST LEGO League … This is the lead-in to the intermediate and high-school competitions.”
This year’s global FIRST LEGO League competition involves food quality and whether teams can find ways to prevent contamination. Therefore, the junior members are tackling the same challenge, looking at exposure, insects, processing, transportation and more.
Gig Harbor Academy is sending four junior teams this year: one made up of second-grade boys, one of girls of varied ages, one of second- and third-grade boys, and one of first- and third-grade boys. The school’s fourth- and fifth-grade team will compete in the FIRST LEGO League competition in December.
“It’s kind of interesting; they chose along the lines of who they thought they could think well with, and they have done a good job,” Johnson said.
Third-grader Mac Bryant said his favorite thing about the competition is working with his classmates.
“You get together with them and get to know them better,” he said. “And there’s LEGOs.”
His teammate, Cameron Myers, added that working with chocolate-chip cookies is an added incentive.
“It’s a really easy snack, and we know that they taste good.”
About those cookies: Each team researched a snack and found out how to preserve it based on its ingredients, how to make it, and how to keep it safe to eat. The students then did research and invented a machine that could be used in the production of their particular snack.
“It has to have a scientific part to it, so it’s not just fun with LEGOs,” Johnson said with a laugh. “We disguise it that way, but we sneak in a little learning, too.”
Even so, she admitted, LEGOS are the primary draw for most students.
“They absolutely love doing anything with LEGOs, and they know this is what preps them for being able to create real robots when they get to fourth and fifth grade,” Johnson said. “It’s a win-win with LEGOs and computers. It’s like a teacher’s dream – no motivation necessary.”
Third-grader Catherine Lavinder said that when she started out last year, “I really liked it, so I kept going on and on and on. I like doing the poster boards and the tech stuff – I’m just really into it.”
The students’ enthusiasm is evident in their projects: One team built a conveyor belt to move the aforementioned Chips Ahoy cookies to different parts of a factory. As the cookies are transported, they are baked and sterilized.
Another group created a duel-cooling stand for popsicle production.
Jacob Buys, a second-grader, said that his team is excited to see if their cooling machine will function once it is fully assembled.
So are they nervous?
“No,” his classmate, Kodi Bear, said steadfastly. “I’m curious.”
The third group built a vehicle to transport caramel apples in a germ-free, sealed environment to keep them from spoiling.
The girls team devised a mixing device that will mix and stir pumpkin pie and keep it from spilling out of the pie pan and getting germs on it. Johnson said with a laugh that one of the biggest challenges was convincing the girls that they had to use a commercially produced pie.
“They said their moms make good pies,” she said.
This is the first year that teams are able to use a computer to run their motors and do the programming.
“One very humble team programmed theirs so when the machine is done doing what it does, applause comes out,” Johnson said. “I finally got them to cut it back because they wanted the applause to continue to cycle, and everyone else in the room was getting tired of it. Now it’s only allowed to repeat five times – not 35.”
Johnson said that one of the FIRST LEGO League’s founding principles is that students develop camaraderie and team spirit. Therefore, one of the major components of the expo is how students deal with competition – and whether they show gracious professionalism.
“If you have heart, and (another team) comes to you and asks if you have a spare widget, part of being a gracious professional is saying ‘yes, sure, you can borrow ours.’ ”
On Saturday, Johnson plans to be a gracious host, too. Gig Harbor Academy’s teams will have pumpkin muffins and apple slices with caramel – “we’ve kind of given up on trying to keep popsicles cool” – for visitors to enjoy.
“And it never hurts to sweeten up the judges,” she joked.