FIRST LEGO League Iowa forges teamwork and leadership at Iowa State, local area communities

Teams of Iowa State University staff, students and alumni from across the state have joined forces to coordinate FIRST® LEGO® League Iowa.

FIRST LEGO League (FLL) is an international program, created by FIRST and LEGO, designed to get children interested in and excited about science, technology and engineering. Every year, FIRST releases a new challenge that engages the teams in hands-on robotics design and scientific research.

This year’s challenge is Nature’s Fury and teams of children, ages 9 to 14, from across the state build robots using the LEGO Mindstorms robotics kit, and are exploring through research and teamwork some awe-inspiring storms, quakes, waves and other natural disasters.

Regional FLL events across Iowa

Iowa State University College of Engineering Community Outreach directs the efforts of Iowa FLL and works with regional organizers from across the state to make 14 regional events a reality for more than 400 teams. As part of this effort, Extension and Outreach staff Karen Pattison and Jennifer Pollard hosted their inaugural FIRST LEGO League regional event in Osceola on Dec. 14.

Pollard is a Clarke County youth and outreach coordinator, and Pattison is a regional youth program specialist. Both work with Iowa’s 4-H program and partnered to lead this event.

“We are excited to help offer this and other educational opportunities to engage youth in the sciences,” Pattison said about the tournament.

“This FIRST LEGO League event is a great way to increase public awareness of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) through robotics,” Pollard added. “We found there seems to be a lot of students in the area interested in robotics. We even have some members who have joined 4-H for the first time just to participate in the robotics club.”

Pattison says they were excited by the number of teams that signed up to participate in this event and added that the competition received wide support from local communities.

Mechanical engineering student referees at FLL tournaments

Chris Guetzlaff, a junior in mechanical engineering at Iowa State, recently became head referee of Iowa FLL.

He was a freshman in high school when he first participated in FIRST-related events, and he was involved with the FIRST Robotics Competition in Cedar Falls for his entire high school career. After graduation, he enrolled at Iowa State University and began volunteering as a referee for the Iowa FLL Championship held each January on campus.

As a referee, he trains and works with other referees to score the teams’ LEGO robot based on the number of missions, or challenges, they’ve completed with their autonomous robot.

Guetzlaff volunteered as a head ref at multiple tournaments this season. At the Ottumwa regional event run by Jeff Henderson of Indian Hills Community College, one team really caught his attention. He said one of the missions for the Nature’s Fury theme required teams to use their LEGO robot to put a house up on stilts, which is often seen in areas of frequent flooding.

“I’ve been studying the game for as long as they’ve had it,” Guetzlaff said.

But that team just came up to it with an arm, straightened the robot on the house, dropped an arm down and drove backwards to lift up the house.

“I always thought of an idea of driving by, but I never thought of overshooting it and pulling backwards to be able to lift it,” he said, impressed by the team’s clever thinking.

John Deere employee coordinates competitions in Quad Cities

John Deere employee Pat Barnes coordinates Iowa FLL regional events in the Quad Cities at the Putnam Museum. Barnes graduated from Iowa State University with a bachelor’s in electrical engineering in 1981. After graduating, he started work at John Deere where he was initially responsible for control system design for manufacturing equipment.

Today, Barnes is the program director for John Deere Inspire, a global initiative that is designed to inspire the next generation of innovators through K-12 education in STEM.

Barnes said he first became involved with Iowa FLL after he was contacted by Camille Sloan Schroeder, director of Iowa FLL who oversees K-12 community outreach for the College of Engineering. Schroeder contacted him in 2009 and asked him to be a judge for the state tournament and he accepted.

“Pat and I have partnered for many years on STEM outreach for youth,” said Schroeder. “I thought he would make a fantastic tournament organizer, and he is a great advocate of STEM education.”

Barnes added that the Quad City area FLL tournaments have grown from one event with 13 teams in 2009 to three events and 110 FLL & Jr. FLL teams; supporting more than 700 students with more than 150 volunteers in 2013.

In addition to helping with the regional tournaments, he also serves on the judging panel for the FLL State Championship held at Iowa State and at the FIRST “World” Championships.

John Deere offers team grants and sponsorships near Deere communities supporting more than 190 teams this season. The company also supports teams with more than 130 mentors from its global technical workforce, which includes FLL. The company is also one of the sponsors for the FIRST LEGO League Global Innovation Award.

“I enjoy the chance to see people in STEM working with students who may not have met with engineers or technologist before,” Barnes said.

Competition wraps up in regional tournaments, preparations for state championship

The Iowa FLL State Championship will be held Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014. Teams will compete on Iowa State University’s campus within the following buildings: Howe Hall, Hoover Hall, Black Engineering, Pearson Hall, Design Building and Marston Hall.

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