The energy is what hits you — almost bowls you over the minute the cafeteria door swings open about midday on a Saturday at Charles Rushe Middle School. This is a party in full swing, filled with the sound of kids having a heck of a good time. Laughter, chatter, high fives all around and a DJ on the stage spouting direction to the pounding music as middle schoolers in T-shirts touting the "Patribots," "Ibots," and "Gigabotz" get to the business of doing the Macarena.
Pasco's First Lego League Robotics Tournament, held Dec. 1 at Rushe Middle School in Land O'Lakes, was a festive event where dancing unabashedly might as well have been part of the rule book. Sixteen teams — 12 of those coming from six Pasco middle schools — showed their engineering, computer and team building skills in the tournament hosted by longtime Lego coach of the "Brick Buddies" and homeschooling mom Shelly Kapler.
"As you can see, we've been doing a lot of dancing," said Thomas Rimos IV, 13, a member of Chasco Middle's Gigabotz team. "But I think it's a real good opportunity, too."
"It's been great," said Gigabotz team member Juan Arguelles, 14. "I've met a whole bunch of new friends today."
"It's a blast," said Miller Bacon, 14, of team Rushe Robotics. "I didn't think it would be this big or this much fun. There are over 100 people here. It's just mind blowing."
"It is a lot about having fun," said Bill Hamrick, a technology education instructor from Bayonet Point Middle who brought four teams to the county's inaugural event, including the Patriot Robots, who are now slated to go onto regional competition in early February.
"I'm very proud of the kids," Hamrick said. "They amaze me with all the ideas they come up with. Things I never would have thought of."
There is a lot of unbridled thinking going on. This is, after all, a competition about trying to solve real life problems with Legos. So kids strategize and troubleshoot throughout the day. Jack Splaine, 12, was one of two robot controllers from the Walker Middle School Wolves team from Hillsborough County who was getting a good taste of what it is like to work well under pressure. While others had moved on to the Electric Slide, he was putting the team robot, "Walker," through a final run on the practice gameboard with the help of Nathan Lee, 12, and Nathaniel Nester, 12.
"We have multiple missions lined up," Jack said after "Walker" finally moved successfully across the table and pushed a lever, prompting a tiny Lego dog to move. "We want to get as many points as we can."
For weeks — and in some cases, months — team members have been building and programing their robots to take on a variety of challenges outlined in Legos' "Senior Solutions" challenge.
There are three facets to the tournament: technical, project and core values.
First, students must build and program a robot to complete tasks that might help the elderly in various ways. Some of the missions their robot must complete within 2 minutes and 30 seconds include walking a dog, fixing and moving a broken chair or taking a pot off the stove. Students earn points for each mission the robot completes within the time limit.
The project portion is done in advance of the tournament. Team members are required to recruit a partner over age 60 who can help them identify and solve a problem that seniors might grapple with. For instance, Bayonet Point's Patriot Robots, who won the project portion of the tournament, came up with a design for programmable pill dispenser.
"They put a lot into it," said Hamrick, noting that his students first started out meeting once a week after school, but quickly bumped it up to four and five times a week. "They had to research it, come up with a solution or product, and see if there's anything out there like it. They had talk to people in the industry: nurses and pharmacists. And they had to confer with their senior partner, in this case our reading teacher, Sherri Hardin, to see if what they came up with would be practical. Through the process they got some very good feedback. They found things they hadn't thought of, such as the intricacy of working with different sizes of medication."
The third facet, and a coach's favorite, is core values. While judges at the tournament oversee the robots on the play board, some also move throughout the venue observing the speech and actions of youngsters, their coaches and parents. Yes, even parents can lose points for their child's team with their unsportsmanlike conduct.
"Its a brimming, positive event," said Walker Middle history teacher and coach Karen Nester. "There's the emphasis on core values and working together and everybody here lives that. It's not just on paper."
"They call it 'gracious professionalism,' " Hamrick said. "They watch for things like team spirit, how they respect each other, how they work together, good sportsmanship.
That seemed to be the overlying theme at Pasco's First Lego tournament.
"Good luck" was a collective cry as the tournament started the official countdown, "One, two, three, Lego" and robots moved at various paces.
"It's amazing — just great, great, great, great," said Tony Dolcelli, 54, who was there to watch his son Kyle, 13, compete for Rushe Middle. "They get to use their brains outside the box. It's a lot of work, but they're having so much fun they don't realize it."