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Building on success

Cheney Middle School's team Fear the Flaming Moon pose with their FLL robotics awards. Pictured are (from left), back row: Kyleigh Schatz, Cydney Pralle, Zach Olson; Front row: Brandon Lawance. Submitted photo1 / 2
Team STEM Heroes included (from left) Simi Kaur, Abby Kleindl, Gurtaran Johal, Taranvir Johal and Harpreet Singh. Submitted photo2 / 2

Legos, those iconic interlocking building bricks designed for youth, have spurred both fun and imagination for decades.

Although nothing more than toys to most people, Legos have also popped up in possibly the most uncanny of places: schools.

Students from West Fargo's Cheney Middle School and STEM Center recently used Legos as their media during the state FIRST Lego League (FLL) Robotics Championship at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. Thirty-five teams from across both North Dakota and Minnesota met to square off in the competition.

While all the West Fargo teams represented their schools well, a couple stood out in the FLL judges' eyes.

STEM students Simi Kaur, Abby Kleindl, Gurtaran Johal, Taranvir Johal and Harpreet Singh (a.k.a. Team STEM Heroes) came home with top honors after garnering first place in the research portion of the competition. They also wound up placing third overall to earn a spot at the Lego Innovational Open competition this summer.

"Everyone did a pretty good job," said STEM seventh-grade science instructor Eric Dobervich, who earned a leadership award during the competition.

Team Shadow Builders, STEM's second group of robot competitors, did not place but still performed well, Dobervich said.

Cheney Middle School also had its bright spots.

Team Fear the Flaming Moon took second place in mechanical design. Members included Kyleigh Schatz, Cydney Pralle, Zach Olson and Brandon Lawance.

"The kids were excited. They got a neat little Lego trophy," Cheney Middle School technical education instructor Chad Anderson said.

Cheney's second team did not place.

Bigger and bigger

Since its inception in North Dakota three years ago, the FLL Robotics Championship has exploded in popularity. The 35 teams in attendance this year was a record high, and Anderson said there are talks of splitting the championship into east and west regional competitions next year.

According to a press release, every year, FLL works with experts to create a challenge that relates to a significant real-world issue. The end result is a two-part challenge that requires research to complete "The Project," as well as science and engineering to master the complex missions of "The Robot Game," which includes the "Missions and the Rules."

This year's robotics and research challenge, "Food Factor," explored the topic of food safety and examined the possible points of contamination that human food encounters, then found ways to prevent or combat these contaminates.

"It works out really well. There are a lot of different aspects to it," Dobervich said.

Teams were required to build, test and program an autonomous robot using Legos to solve a set of food safety missions, as well as research, develop and share their innovative food safety solutions. Throughout their experience, teams operated under FLL's signature set of core values.

The FLL competition was judged in four areas: project presentation, robot performance, technical design and programming of the robot, and FLL Core Values. The highest honor went to the team that best exemplified the spirit and values of the program.

As far as technical education and West Fargo Public School's STEM programs are concerned, a project such as the FLL competition is right up their alley.

"It works well with what we do here at STEM because it's more project based," Dobervich said. The emphasis on STEM's core values, such as mathematics, problem solving and engineering, is ideal for teaching students through real-world situations.

"Educationally, I think it's moving toward a more hands-on, real-world experience for kids," Dobervich added. "Not only having technology available, but also learning how to use it appropriately."

While the competition emphasized learning and education, it was so much more than that, Anderson said.

"You say 'robotics league,' and people automatically think all you do is go work on robots. But it's so much more than that. It's about being gracious, and sportsmanship," Anderson said. "And they (the judges) look at all the different things that kids have to offer as citizens."

A new frontier

With such a high emphasis on technology in today's society, it's no wonder that West Fargo Public School's has placed it as a top priority for students.

Teacher's like Anderson have helped steer the program to where it is today. Their efforts have not gone unnoticed.

The North Dakota Technology and Engineering Educators Association recently selected Cheney Middle School to receive the Technology Education Program Excellence Award.  This award is sponsored by the International Technology and Engineering Educators Association and is in recognition of the outstanding Technology Education programs.

Tech ed instructors Anderson and Jim Thomas were invited to attend the awards conference, which will be held March 15 in Long Beach, Calif.

"Hopefully we can make it there, but we're still working on the funding," Anderson said.

Between the robotic competition wins and their most recent program accolades, it's safe to say the WFPS technical education and STEM programs are performing even better than hoped.

And as far as the teachers are concerned, it's what students need to success in the 20th century.

"It's self-directed learning," Dobervich said.