The FIRST LEGO League didn't exist in Utah until three years ago, according to Kathy Hajeb, executive director of Technology Venture Development at the University of Utah.
The global robotics and innovation competition for kids ages 9 - 14, originally had 500 students state wide competing in the league when it was integrated into the state by Hajeb and the university in 2010. The program has grown to over 2,000 Utah students and expected to grow, said Hajeb.
Community teams comprised of students throughout the state have taken an interest in the learning model that places students in real-world situations. A team named RoboThunder, a neighborhood crew, consisting of students from schools in the Park City area has made waves in the program, according to Hajeb.
The team which compiles of Paul Cox (12 years-old, Weilenmann School of Discovery), Max Davidson (13, WSD), Jake Gregory (13, Ecker Hill Middle School), Zina Horman (13, WSD), Zach Lund (10, Park City Day School), Kip McClellan (10, WSD), and Garrett McClellan (12, WSD), coached by Scott McClellan, a father of two team members and a bioengineer, won first place for an invention the team created in the research project category at this year's World Festival Competition held in St. Louis, Mo. at the end of the April.
Every FIRST LEGO League season has a theme. This year it was "senior solution," requiring teams from around the world to invent something innovative addressing the assigned problem.
"Falling is one of the leading causes of death for seniors, and it's a major problem," said coach McClellan in a press release. "The team identified the issue early on and came up with a great solution. They went way beyond the idea phase, testing every possible thing to make it work and even securing a provisional patent."
RoboThunder identified falling as the most urgent problem for seniors. Their solution was a wearable airbag, much like a fanny pack, that deploys when a senior is falling and calls emergency services to the GPS location of the fall.
Many students, from countries as far as Columbia, China and Germany to compete in the global tournament after winning state or regional tournaments in their area. RoboThunder advanced after winning the Utah FIRST LEGO League Championship at the University of Utah earlier this year.
"Once we got to the world festival, the level of competition was pretty daunting and intimidating," McClellan said. "No matter how hard you work, there is a world of teams that have worked as hard as you have, maybe harder."
There were 30,000 teams from more than 60 countries that entered this year's FLL challenge. Only a handful of teams advanced to the main event in St. Louis.
Every tournament consists of several components. The robot game table takes center stage, where teams complete missions with autonomous LEGO robots they've built. The tournament also includes a robot design competition, team values competition and a project presentation, according to the Hajeb and the university.
RoboThunder was able to pull together as a team and performed well during the state tournament, but really shined during the world festival after pulling together work the team compiled the past year, said McClellan.
"It's phenomenal what this team came up with, and they are only in middle school," Hajeb said. "By initiating this program, we are trying to put a real-world focus on academics, not just the traditional learning process. The motivation, problem solving skills and team effort demonstrated by this Park City team is proof we are making an impact."