Kids find solutions fun in Lego League

When it comes to solving a real-life problem, kids like Ben Kulm say all you have to do is try.

It’s helpful that he has teammates to work with and the incentive of programming a robot in the problem-solving activities of Lego League. “We try things a lot and fail and keep on trying different things. Sometimes we get it right and mess up again.” Then, they just keep on trying.

Kulm, 11 and a Flandreau fifth grader, is one of six on the Flandreau community-based Lego League team named Furry Brown Bananas. That group and another Flandreau team called Neon Ice Cream Headaches will compete Saturday at a qualifier event at Memorial Middle School in Sioux Falls. They are working toward earning a golden ticket and advancing to the state competition in January.

Ben’s dad, Ted Kulm, said Lego League is a good activity for kids, and it includes goal setting, leadership and teamwork.

“It makes them think about a long-term strategy and how to achieve their goals,” the older Kulm said. “It makes them think about how you would plan out a project, how you would go from start to end.”

The teams’ missions were to solve a problem in the water cycle, thinking about the area where they live. The Furry Brown Bananas came up with the idea of an unmanned, submersible robot that could be sent to the bottom of lakes to remove zebra mussels, an invasive species. They did a research paper, created a skit and programmed a robot as part of their competition entry.

“Last year, we made a buzzer to scare beavers,” Ben said. “This year, we’re figuring out a way to get rid of zebra mussels from the bottom of a lake.”

Flandreau had enough kids for one team last year, and that group made it to state. This year, there are two teams, sponsored by Studio 52, Buck Agency and Ramsdell’s. Interest in the program has grown in other communities, too, with twice as many teams competing this year at the qualifying event, said Wendy Streitz, a volunteer parent coach from Flandreau.

Neon Ice Cream Headaches, with two of the seven team members staying on from last year, decided on a project that conserves water while showering, said a team coach Matt Knippling whose son, Liam, is on the team for his second year.

Through their research, the team of fourth and fifth graders came up with a pressure sensitive plate in the shower that shuts down the water or turns it cold after a certain amount of time.

Knippling likes coaching the Lego League team because of the creative way the kids solve problems. “It’s kind of hands off. That’s kind of neat just watching them learn.”

Streitz also said she likes watching the kids tackle a problem as a group and figure out solutions.

“It’s a new challenge for them. In the world that we live in where the STEM topics are so important for them to learn -- science, technology, engineering and math -- this helps them take those first steps in those STEM topics,” she said. Her son Abe, also a fifth grader, is on the Furry Brown Bananas team.

Coaches can answer questions but can’t solve problems, said Streitz who works as an information technology service delivery manager for Sanford Health in Sioux Falls. For example, when the Furry Brown Bananas team couldn’t get the robot to work, she taught them the steps of troubleshooting so that they could find the problem themselves and fix it.

“We have to be coaches and mentors first but we don’t give them the solutions,” she said. “That’s a big part of Lego League is the discovery.”

As part of her team’s solution, they determined that pollution could be removed from the zebra mussels and they could be used as food for fish, for example, while the shells could be ground up as fertilizer.

“Getting them to do it is not difficult because they’re excited about it,” she said of the team members who usually are naturally interested in science topics. “It’s very collaborative. It’s very much about teamwork. They enjoy it.”

It’s a chance to meet students from other communities and learn to be good competitors, too, she said. “They also learn how to both win and lose graciously. They learn that winning is not the most important part. It’s what they learn.”

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