LAWRENCEBURG — How far can you go making and playing with toy robots?
The Lego Legends, a 4-H club team of 10 home-schooled girls and boys from Anderson, Franklin and Mercer counties, have gone to regional and state robotics competitions in the past four months. At the state championship in Bowling Green, it competed against 44 teams and placed second to a group from Louisville.
Now the Lego Legends are raising money for a trip to San Diego from May 18 to 20 to compete in the First Lego League national championship. Coach Kelli Gowan says the kids, ages 9 to 14, have come a lot further than their parents ever expected when they formed the team three years ago.
"The goal was to get our kids excited about science and technology by making it more like sports," she said. "Now, they'll just step up and do about anything. And it's so much fun, they want to do it all the time."
Using Lego bricks and special kits of computer chips, team members learn about robot construction and computer programming. They also have learned a lot about research, leadership, communication and the science of food safety — the focus of their competition project.
At a team meeting Monday afternoon, Gowan and other parents mostly stayed out of the way. Team members, dressed in blue and green tie-dyed T-shirts, self-organized at four tables to accomplish tasks to prepare for national competition. They built robots and used a laptop computer and three- dimensional design software to make drawings so the robots could be replicated later.
As part of the team's project on food safety, the kids have talked with scientists; visited a fish hatchery and the Kentucky State University research farm; and toured a grocery store, a pizza restaurant and the Ale 8 One bottling plant.
They have made a newspaper and a mock TV newscast, and they've given presentations about food safety— specifically, mercury contamination of fish — to business and civic groups around Central Kentucky.
In November, they even joined a weekly sit-in outside Gov. Steve Beshear's office in Frankfort to call attention to the role that surface coal mining plays in mercury contamination of water and fish.
As part of the sit-in, team members surveyed 150 people in the state Capitol about their fish consumption and awareness of mercury contamination in Kentucky, most of which comes from coal-burning power plants.
"It was a way for the kids to learn about making a difference," parent Lisa Schmoetzer said.
Team members also researched and developed a prototype device to test mercury levels in fish. It would be simpler and less costly than commercial devices used to test fish for a variety of pollutants, Gowan said.
The team has talked with an attorney and is applying for a preliminary patent on the device. "I don't know that we'll pursue it, but they have learned about the patent process," she said.
In addition to their invention, research project and presentation, team members will be judged in California on their ability to work together to design and build a robot to accomplish specific tasks the judges assign.
While they polish their engineering, computer and presentation skills, the kids are doing a lot of fund-raising to pay for the trip. Gowan said they have earned nearly $4,500 of their $23,000 goal by selling candy, light bulbs and gift cards; busing tables at local restaurants; and picking up litter from 11 miles of Anderson County roadside.
They also have received donations from Lawrenceburg-area residents, businesses and civic groups. Anyone interested in donating can contact Gowan at email@example.com or the Anderson County Cooperative Extension Service at (502) 839-7271.
"One of the biggest challenges we've had is people not knowing what we do," Cowan said.
For more information about robotics competition and the international First Lego League, go to FirstLegoLeague.org.
Some team members said the experience might have inspired them to careers in engineering or computer science, but it's a little too soon to say. It led one boy to get into children's theater, and several others have earned their Boy Scout robotics merit badges.
"We've learned to communicate better," said Luke Edwards, 11. "When we're doing this, we have to talk a lot and share our ideas."