Students explore climate science in state FIRST LEGO League championship

AMES, Iowa -- They'll build their LEGO robots, take careful aim and then set them loose to try to do some good things for the world's climate.

Those little robots, for example, will do their LEGO best to bury carbon dioxide, turn off lights, fund climate research, insulate a house, ride a bicycle, telecommute and study wildlife.

The simulated missions are part of the eighth annual FIRST LEGO League Iowa Championship at Iowa State University's College of Engineering. The competition will bring 72 teams of up to 10 9- to 14-year-olds to Howe Hall from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 17.

This year's challenge theme is "Climate Connections." The teams will be judged on how well their robots complete their table-top missions. And they'll also have to complete a project that asks them to research how climate affects their own communities, create a solution to that problem and share what they've learned.

"Why is climate important to us?" asks a contest description. "By gaining a greater understanding of the earth's complex climate systems, we will be able to work together now and in the future to develop the innovative solutions that will benefit us all and continue to improve the world in which we live."

This year's state championship will feature winners from six regional qualifying tournaments. Another eight teams won invitations after they were selected in a random lottery. Qualifiers are from across the state, including Ames, Boone, Cedar Falls, Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Denver, Des Moines, Iowa City, Marshalltown, Newton, Ottumwa, Sioux City, West Des Moines and Union.

This is the first year for the qualifying tournaments. They attracted 145 teams and were added because the state championship reached its capacity last year and had to turn teams away.

"We knew we needed a system so teams that wanted a tournament experience could have one," said Camille Sloan Schroeder, championship director and the manager of Iowa State Engineering Kids, a program that promotes science, technology and engineering to elementary and secondary students.

The FIRST LEGO League experience is a lot more like a sports event than an academic competition. Students show up in team T-shirts. They gather in corners and hallways to check and double-check their robots. They do their best to impress judges. And when they compete, they cheer their teammates and their robots with jumps, shouts and high fives.

The winning team at the state competition will qualify for international competitions.

But every team is going to learn some lessons in LEGO construction, climate science, engineering and problem-solving.

"The goal is really to show kids what engineering is and how it can be fun and entertaining," Schroeder said. "These students work in a team environment in the middle grades and that's similar to what engineers do. And we want the students to learn that engineers create innovative solutions to real-world problems."

The state championship is sponsored by Iowa State's College of Engineering, Rockwell Collins, the communications and aviation electronics company with headquarters in Cedar Rapids, and private donors. The contest is free and open to the public.

FIRST LEGO League logo

FIRST LEGO League is the creation of FIRST, a nonprofit organization based in New Hampshire that's dedicated to inspiring young people to explore science and technology, and the LEGO Group, the Denmark-based toy manufacturer.