GILFORD – There was clapping, cheering, high-fives and excitement galore in the gym at Gilford Middle School on Saturday, but there was nary a basketball to be found. Rather, it was the FIRST Lego League "Lego at the Lakes" competition.
FIRST Lego League is an international organization whose teams apply science, engineering and math concepts to develop solutions to real-world challenges.
In the course of the year, team members (there are a maximum of 10 per team) meet often with adult advisors, creating a robot designed to perform certain tasks. The letters in FIRST stand for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.
Middle school youngsters from grades 4-8 – from 20 middle schools and organizations around the state – did robotic battle.
With names like the "Black Hole Beavers" and "To Infinity and Beyond," teams competed to qualify for the state competition to be held next month in Windham. Teams came from Concord, Hopkinton, Wolfeboro, Andover, Meredith, Farmington, Barnstead and Franklin to test their skills in an event hosted by Gilford High School’s Screaming Eagles Robotics Team, along with Gilford Middle School’s LEGOSmiths.
From 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., the gym was filled with family, friends and robotic fans as teams stepped to the competition tables in the middle of the gym. Each team had their own robot and team members had 2½ minutes to coax their creations to perform a variety of tasks, receiving loud and affirmative entreaties from those ringing the arena.
While the action was taking place, stirring music played over the sound system, including the theme from the film "Chariots of Fire" and a variety of "Star Wars" tunes.
Robotics teams are growing across the state – while many communities have had high school teams for several years, middle school teams are on the increase.
One of the basics of 21st century education is following STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) and robotics feeds into that model.
Kaileif Mitchell, one of the judges, is a Laconia native who now works out of state as a systems engineer."I didn’t have this when I was growing up," he said. "This allows the kids to develop in a controlled environment, doing test and retest. They learn by failing, working in collaboration with each other, learning to work with a team mentality.”
In order to foster more interest in robotics, the New Hampshire Department of Education has created a special grant program available for all public and private charter schools. Several of the schools that competed on Saturday received grants, including teams from Rumney and Franklin.
Marcus Marland, 13, a member of the first-year Franklin Force, said he enjoys “coding the robot.”
“We are named 'Step on our Legos' said advisor/mentor Doug Earick of Rumney. “it is a jest that every parent will know as they end stepping on a leftover Lego.
“This program is great for our kids,” Earick said. "It is part of our enrichment club. We only have 120 kids in K-8. It teaches presentation skills, collaboration. The team has 10 members – all seventh- and eighth-graders. It is comprised of eight girls and two boys.
The Astro Llama team members were made up of Girl Scouts of Wolfeboro who were competing for the first time, and several members found that FIRST had given them new skills.
Miriam Lambert 13, said a lot of her friends compete in various sports, but she likes robotics “because it is something you can’t find everywhere.” Teammates Amelia Bickford, Evelyn Hafner, Adrianna Noel and Avalyn Lambert all chimed in, giving credence to the collaborative nature of the program.
“It helps us all not to be afraid of talking in presentations and focus on working together,” Bickford said.
Coach and mentor Briar Lambert referred to FIRST as “the hardest fun you’ll ever have.”
Gilford Middle School was proud to host the event and had more than 85 volunteers helping, in addition to having several teams in the competition. Gilford High School freshman Colby Smith has been coaching the middle school team, sharing his experience. He looks forward to joining the GHS team. “I love robotics and its creativity,” Smith said. “Engineering is my future.”
The Beech Hill School of Hopkinton had two teams involved, the Black Hole Beavers and the Beech Hill Satellites. The school is regional and includes students from Concord, Loudon and Tilton.
Deborah Mitchell, a retired teacher who watched the event, said she was impressed with the level of intellectual inquiry involved in FIRST. “I really like the opportunity it gives them to assess a problem and work through it,” she said.
Teams going on to the state finals on Dec. 1 are: Step on our Legos, Black Hole Beavers, the Blue Heron Gamma, Delta and Epsilon teams, Astro Llamas and Beech Hill Satellites.