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Lego League competitions teach robotics, innovation

Published: Saturday, Jan. 4 2014 6:30 p.m. MST

MURRAY — Zia Terry loves to build things.

"Ever since I can remember, I've been fascinated with the way things work," she said. The 12-year-old was one of three minds behind Doodle Bots, a team of young friends who designed, built and programmed a robot made of Legos.

Terry's arm contained a series of notes she'd written there, so as not to forget how the robot was supposed to perform.

"I can build a robot and he can make it do stuff," she said, pointing to her teammate, Derrick Peabody, who is also 12. He's the programmer behind the product, and a third teammate, Grace Patton, 12, comes up with the ideas.

"All three of us don't play video games, and I don't watch TV, except for the Super Bowl, and we read books all the time," Terry said, adding that her favorite book is Tom Sawyer.

While the young Terry plans to go into industrial design, Patton is paving the way to become an author, having already started writing her first book. And Peabody isn't quite sure what the future holds, but has expressed an interest in the science of alternative energy.

"Each of them brings their own unique personality and ability to the team," said Doodle Bots coach, Jennifer Terry, of Park City. She said it has been a fun experience to see the kids get involved and learn more along the way.

"I think they can all out-computer us," she said, adding that the program, which is hosted by the University of Utah's Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute, helps the kids learn "about a million different things."

The kids' robot participated in various contests at Murray High School on Saturday, pushing other Legos around, lifting them and stopping them from rolling off the course. Robots were also judged for design and the teams for incorporating a set of core values.

"We had to learn how to cooperate with each other so we could accomplish things," said Livia Austin, 11. Austin was part of one of three teams from Monticello Academy, in West Valley City. She said playing with Legos helps to calm her when she's "stressed out."

"It gets me excited about having my own science business when I grow up," she said, adding that science is important in a lot of things. "You have to get the calculations just right or your robot can make a wrong turn and then you lose."

The friendly competition among about a dozen teams was all part of the Utah First Lego League tournament, a qualifying round for upcoming final competition at the end of the month.

In the process, thousands of middle school students, ages 9 to 14, learn about building and programming the $350 robots from kits, as well as develop presentations on a specific topic, which revolved around natural disasters this year. The international program is also meant to foster various skills such as teamwork, creativity and invention, communication, and more.

"It's a good fit for kids who aren't necessarily into athletics or other team sports, but also gets kids thinking about the fields of science and engineering, which are up and coming in our time," said Wayne Oberg, recreation coordinator for Murray City. He said the events fuel kids to achieve more and "who doesn't like Legos."

The feats kids are asked to accomplish within the league are "very challenging," said Robyn Hase, of Park City, who helped organize her son's group, the Mindcrafters.

"We like making stuff that's not in the instructions," said fellow Mindcrafter, Micah Procino, who is 9. He said programming the robots is fun, but he also likes spending time with his friends and working on a project together.

"It puts them in the engineering mindset," Hase said. "And like anything, I think it's good to expose kids to it and let them decide what they want to do with it."

Six locations along the Wasatch Front hosted qualifying tournaments on Saturday, while another six are slated for next weekend. Each will send their two best teams to the finals, for a state championship event at the U. on Saturday, Jan. 25.

For more information about the program, visit www.utfll.utah.edu.

Email: wleonard@deseretnews.com, Twitter: wendyleonards

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