It may seem like child's play, but Lego League has real mission for kids

Brooke Elston, mentor Chris Elston and Elijah Chesterman (from left) watch as their Lego League robot travels down a path on its way to complete an assigned mission.
Brooke Elston, mentor Chris Elston and Elijah Chesterman (from left) watch as their Lego League robot travels down a path on its way to complete an assigned mission. Photo by Cindy Klepper.

Originally published Oct. 12, 2009.

They have a mission.

A mission to be completed with tiny plastic blocks - brought to life through sophisticated computer programming.

The mission is being carried out by a group of middle school students who make up the Lego League, a junior counterpart to the established Huntington County 4-H robotics team that recently presented the Huntington Police Department with a fully-functional robot designed to be used during officer firearms training.

For the Lego Leaguers, though, the goal is not quite as lofty. The immediate objective is to program the Lego robot to travel in a straight line, then turn.

You have to start somewhere.

And Chris Elston, a local engineer who serves as a mentor in the program, says these middle school kids - who have been meeting only since mid-September - can do it.

"They are very comptuer savvy already," he says.

The Lego League team is working with Lego kits purchased a couple of years ago through a grant awarded to the Huntington County Community Schools. Crestview Middle School science teachers Brian Milton and Travis Bolinger incorporated the robot kits into their classrooms last year. When they connected with Elston, who was already involved with a robotics club for older students, the result was the formation of Lego League Team 3669 as part of the nationwide FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotics program - and the challenge of competition on the horizon.

For now, though, these scientists-in-training are building and brainstorming at the Henline Towing building on Sherman Street.

"We've got a bunch of missions to practice," explains team member Jiosa Johnson, a student at Crestview Middle School.

Teammate Brooke Elston, a Riverview Middle School student and daughter of Chris Elston, explains the process: The FIRST organization has given the team a blueprint for setting up a course and a variety of "missions" their robot must accomplish. The robot gains points for specific actions, and loses points for others.

"We get to decide what missions we get to do and we get to plan the robot," Brooke Elston explains. "You're trying to do a lot of missions to get points."

Johnson and Elston are two of the 11 middle school students on the team. Competition teams are limited to 10 members, Chris Elston explains, and he's decided to start small.

"We wanted to take it slow," he says. "This is really like a rookie team ... If we had 20 kids interested, we could have two teams."

The Huntington Lego League team plans to be one of the 158 teams across Indiana to participate in the state contest.

Its first competition will be a qualifying event to be held on Nov. 14 at Purdue Calumet in Hammond. The top 48 teams will move on to the championship event at Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne.

So far, the local team has mapped out a course for its robot on a table about the same size as a ping-pong table. Walls, dividers, bridges and obstacles have all been built out of Legos. The robot is also built out of Legos, with its movements controlled by a control pack that is programmed by computer.

The entire process must be completed within eight weeks.