Saint Theresa School's FIRST LEGO League team entered the regional competition as the decided underdogs. The group of seven started building their robot later than the other teams, and neither the students nor their coach had any experience programming LEGO bots.
So it came as a surprise when the group not only to moved on to the next district competition, they also placed fourth out of 12 in the robotics category.
"We truly went into this expecting to lose. We really didn't dream that big. I just think that, as the kids put it one day, 'We get to play robots at school.' It was a way to engage them," Principal Anne Filce said.
The team started two months ago when a donor gave the school the resources for the LEGO hardware and software. The group of students programmed and researched a robot - imagine a gray box with wheels and a miniature catapult fastened on top - to perform challenges and score points in the timed competitions.
FIRST LEGO League is an international robotics program meant to get children and teens excited about science and technology. Clubs program an autonomous robot to complete tasks such as knocking down miniature bowling pins, balancing on a LEGO bridge, or retrieving objects, and students get the chance to compete in official tournaments.
The South Lake Tahoe team --comprised of six fifth-graders and one eighth-grader --needed to innovate, collaborate and concentrate to build the bots. As fifth-grader Griffin Howell said, he's built robots before but they haven't actually worked, so it was gratifying to see the machines follow commands the programmers input into the computer.
There's also been a lot of good old-fashioned trial and error.
"We made a different thing that was lower and way wider. But that didn't work so we changed it to this and put a motor on top to fling things. It surprises us that we can tell a robot what to do," Howell said.
Each individual student has a role to play on the team. From researchers who study design and functionality to programmers who make the robot run, the children find ways to work together as a group, Filce said.
"We had to be friendly with each other. We had a lot of arguments, so we had to make up," fifth-grade researcher Noah Lyle agreed.
Saint Theresa's FIRST LEGO League coach Jason Toutolmin said he had confidence in the robot going into the competition, but they were all surprised by just how well the team placed. Toutolmin --who had no experience programming robots before October, but had grown up in a LEGO family - plans to keep the tasks simple for the January tournament.
"It's the fun of creating something starting with a big pile of parts. Most kids, and adults, once they build the LEGO kit, they tear it apart and build their own thing. Adding another way of learning is good for them. It's good to get the science and computer aspect, since that's the future for them" Toutolmin said.
Toutolmin's son, Nate, leaned over a laptop Tuesday, carefully plugging in data to make the robot touch a wall and then say, "Ouch." His teammates gathered around the small machine as the robot took off across the carpet. The front sensor hit the wall and a tinny, robotic voice issued from the machine.
"I'm a genius," fifth-grader Toutolmin said with a grin.