First LEGO League returns
Hickory Elementary School Robo Squirrels team members, from left, Iniyaal Raguraj, Lizzy Kelly, Kate Walsh and Hannah Chan, watch intently as their autonomous robot performs a task during the FIRST LEGO League Challenge qualifying rounds at the U.S. ... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. - Nearly 130 students from across the state competed in the fourth annual FIRST LEGO League (FLL) robotics competition hosted at the U.S. Army Test and Evaluation Command headquarters on APG North (Aberdeen) Jan. 24.

Team APG partnered with the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) and For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) to host the qualifying event for students age 9 to 14. Twelve teams of up to 10 members competed for six awards including the Grand Champion Award and a guaranteed spot at the Maryland FLL Championship.

This year's challenge was to find a better or more innovative way to help someone learn.

Student teams were given Lego Mindstorm robotics kits and asked to design, build and program robots, applying real-world math and science concepts to solve 13 challenges and to apply problem-solving skills and creativity to design a solution, or modify an existing solution, to solve a real-life problem. Teams were evaluated on their presentation, teamwork, and the robot's design and performance.

Robert Oehrli, a referee and UMBC graduate student who has volunteered with FLL for five years, said it's not uncommon for some teams to receive patents for the ideas they generate during the real world problem-solving portion of the event. He said the event opens doors for students as they continue through higher education and beyond.

"This event is truly a great experience for young minds," added Christina Bryant, ATEC Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, STEM, outreach coordinator.

"The activities are interactive; students are taught FIRST core values of teamwork, being effective and efficient, the joy of being inspired, the value of discovery, having team spirit, and being inclusive, respectful and cooperative when working with others," she said.

The robot games consisted of two opposing teams facing each other across 'a field', atop what resembles an air hockey table. The programmed autonomous robot then performed missions and navigated, captured, transported or delivered objects. Referees managed and scored each challenge and fellow team members cheered them on.

Richard Blorstad, a graduate student at UMBC and volunteer referee, said the rules of the competition were developed by a game designer from Lego Education and are detailed and complex.

"I still, to this day, don't know all the rules for this season. I'm constantly being corrected by teams who know the rules better than I do. And these are middle school kids. I'm a graduate student in engineering and they understand it better than I do. It's really impressive," Blorstad said.

FIRST is a non-profit organization founded in 1989 to inspire interest and participation in science and technology. FIRST founder Dean Kamen emphasized that the FLL is "not about building robots; it's about robots building people."

That axiom holds true for Dara Ryan, whose 11-year old son Ben participated on the Robo Squirrels team. She said her son's interest in STEM-related subjects blossomed after he started competing in qualifiers two years ago.

"Ever since he could pick up anything, he's been playing with Legos. He's definitely had an interest in building, so I'm hoping this will snowball into perhaps an engineering career. I can definitely see his interest in that area," Ryan said.

She added that she enjoyed observing the students as they worked together to solve challenges.

"I think that's wonderful. It's helped Ben in terms of his teamwork skills," she said.

Lawrence Almengor, a FLL parent coach, said his two sons practiced for the event at least once a week since September.

"It's great to see these kids grow in leadership, presentation and poise" he said.

Three teams, the FLL Lady Stormers, Harford Bandits and Lego Minions, will go on to compete in the state competition at UMBC Feb 28. The event begins at noon and is open to the public.

Other FIRST LEGO League winners included:

Champions Award: FLL Lady Stormers

Project Award: Robo Squirrels

Robot Design Award: Engenious'

Robot Performance Award: FLL Lady Stormers

Core Values Award: Diamond Tooth Tigers

Judges Award: The Highlands School

For more information about FIRST LEGO League, visit For information about Maryland's FIRST LEGO League challenge, visit