LEGO learning

Fifth-grader Juliet Jacob's hands were trembling subtly when she started her match Saturday at the FIRST LEGO League robotics competition at Trident Technical College. But her mom could tell even from a distance.

"She's just so nervous," Susan Edwards of Simpsonville said, of her 10-year-old daughter as she watched from the sidelines.

But Juliet quickly pulled it together thanks to plenty of cheering and hooting from fellow teammates and their parents, and she and her partner, 11-year-old Matt Otovic, focused on their match. The youngsters represented Five Oaks Academy's team Fuel Cells.

"It's very scary at the beginning when you're on," Juliet said. "But once you get out there it's pretty fun."

Their team's robot, made of computer-programmed chips tied to LEGO blocks outfitted with electric motors, was tasked to complete missions on an obstacle table in under three minutes.

The missions were based on this year's theme, "Power Puzzle," where teams planted trees, moved a solar panel on to the roof of a house by the sea, relocated hydrogen vehicles and oil barrels, moved a wind turbine close to the ocean, lowered a solar-powered satellite's panel and more.

The idea behind the robotics competition theme was for the youngsters to consider alternative energy sources.

Going along with the green theme, team Hydro Heroes wore green capes, and many put green streaks in their hair.

"I have as much fun as the kids do," said Hydro Heroes coach Stephanie Piness, who also had colored her silvery strands green.

Piness said she hopes the program has helped her students develop interest in becoming engineers. They have not just learned about math and science, but also have gained writing and public speaking skills. "It's so hands-on," she said. "Everybody learns from this."

The team of home-schoolers had done an "energy audit" of a local Chick-fil-A and researched ways the restaurant could be more environmentally friendly but still be efficient. The students created a LEGO structure tagged with proposed improvements, including a geothermal heat pump, solar panels and pressurized fryers.

The nonprofit FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) has paired with LEGO for years, helping young people, particularly those ages 9 to 14, learn how science and technology can solve real-life issues.

That's the ultimate goal, said tournament director Sam Speraw, an instructor in Trident Tech's computer integrated manufacturing program. "Yeah, they can build a robot and they can program a robot, but do they know what the heck it means?"

Twenty-four teams from throughout the state, including home-schooled students and those from area public and private schools, competed in Saturday's tournament.

Winning teams from the regional qualifier will advance to the state competition next month. From there, teams would compete in the world championships held in Atlanta in April.

Fifth-grader Bobby Davis of Knightsville Elementary School said that, as a rookie, he's not so sure if he'll make it as far as the world championships. But nevertheless, he's enjoyed building and programming the robots with his team.

"Some people think that LEGO teams are for geeks, but they're not," the 11-year-old said. "They're really fun."