Students clean up the food chain in Iowa FIRST LEGO League Championship

AMES, Iowa - Look beneath the funny hats, crazy team names, screaming cheers and LEGO robots rolling through their missions and Adele Beauchene says she can see her sixth graders learning some real lessons in engineering and science.

And so Beauchene, who directs talented and gifted programs for the Nevada Community School District, said she's happy to bring her team of seven middle schoolers (they call themselves the "Totally Awesome Green Beans") to the Iowa FIRST LEGO League Championship.

The statewide championship will feature 72 teams of 9- to 14-year-olds. They'll be in action from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 14, at Iowa State University's College of Engineering. They'll show judges what they've learned by running robots through missions, solving a problem and demonstrating core values such as "coopertition." All the lessons focus on this year's "Food Factor" theme, a study of what it takes to get food safely from field to table.

Championship HQ will be Iowa State's Howe Hall. The event is free and open to the public.

"Oh my gosh, it's so fun," said Beauchene, who's taking students to the state championship for the second year in a row.

But the best thing about the annual LEGO contest "is they get an idea of what it would be like to be an engineer or a scientist," she said. "We look for opportunities where students can try a career path or a major in college. This is so much more in-depth than doing a job shadow for a day."

This year teachers, parents and mentors helped students establish a record 295 FIRST LEGO League teams across the state. They competed in nine regional competitions for chances to advance to Iowa State and the state championship. A few lucky teams also won championship spots through a lottery.

The state championship's atmosphere is more like a stadium than a classroom. And that's what makes it a favorite day of the year for Brandon Newendorp, an Iowa State doctoral student in human computer interaction who has helped run and organize the competition for nine years.

"They absolutely go nuts with their own cheers and their ridiculously creative outfits," he said.

But there's a serious side, too.

"I really can't think of a more important thing to do to help kids get into science, engineering and technology," said Newendorp, who's also the championship's master of ceremonies. "I do my best to get them excited. It's incredibly important for our future."

Iowa State's College of Engineering has directed and sponsored the state championship for ten years as part of its outreach and recruiting efforts. The championship is also sponsored by Rockwell Collins, the K. Engel Engineering Outreach Endowment, the Mark Guidry Foundation, General Mills and Loren Zachary, an Iowa State professor of aerospace engineering.

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.