By Kim Brooks, Express Editor
The “LEGO Bandits” have something to be proud of. On Dec. 1, a local group of nine kids who formed a LEGO League competed in Ottumwa, Iowa, and won third place out of 33 other teams!
Coached by Thomas Funk and Daniel Kromminga, the kids (Christopher Funk, Misha Miles, Jensen Wendt, Jayden Orcutt, Molly Miles, Esther Funk, Christina Kromminga, Lydia Funk and Riley Wendt) came together to form a LEGO League and compete across the state.
Thomas Funk explained any group of kids, ages 9 to 14, can form their own LEGO League. To secure funding for the program, Thomas said they applied for a grant through Rockwell Collins to help cover the cost of the LEGO kits.
“They were quite generous,” remarked Thomas of the Rockwell grant.
In order to apply for the grant, the “LEGO Bandits” had to be a non-profit organization, so they partnered with the Berean Bible Church outside of town.
The “LEGO Bandits” are made up of a mixture of boys and girls, which Thomas’ wife Jennifer said helped in securing the grant. One of the girls on their team was actually in charge of programming the computerized robot.
While this particular group is not affiliated with the Monticello School District’s LEGO League, Thomas said they are able to compete like any other group.
“There are no restrictions,” he said.
In competing, there are two portions of the program each group must complete: a mission-centered task and problem solving. These tasks are based on the theme. This year’s theme was “Senior Solutions,” looking at ways society can help senior citizens in our communities.
The group’s problem solving portion took some time. Jennifer said the kids surveyed a wide variety of seniors in Monticello to see what issues or complications they face in their everyday lives. They then sifted through the responses to see if anything matched up. The problem-solving task they ended up with involved pillboxes. The concept: Pillboxes are not only childproof, but they are not user-friendly.
“They had to present the problem and a solution as a skit,” said Jennifer. “Their solution had to be as realistic as possible.”
The kids developed an electronic pillbox that monitors when more than one day of pills are used. If someone tries to open more than one day’s worth of medication, the device goes off, warning him or her.
For the robotics task, the kids had to program and build their robot to perform certain tasks that a senior citizen might do, such as picking something up, walking their dog or balancing themselves when walking.
In all, the kids had two and a half minutes to complete each task and gain as many points as possible. In earning third place for their robotics project, Thomas said the judges were impressed with the way the kids designed special robot attachments that helped their robot complete certain tasks.
Unlike the LEGOS you might think of, the LEGOS used in LEGO League are high-tech.
“Kids are exposed to problem-solving, science and technology,” said Thomas of the advantages of being in a LEGO League. “It stretched them to think.”
Jennifer noted that the kids experienced moments of frustration when the robot didn’t perform as needed. Thomas said in cases like this, the coaches cannot intervene, but have to let the kids work it out themselves.
“We can help re-direct them,” said Thomas, “but they make the ultimate decision.”
The kids all worked hard for three months straight on their LEGO League project. While some were stronger in other areas, they all worked together, bringing home a well-deserved prize.
“They were all so proud,” said Jennifer of the accomplishment. “This was a good experience and confidence-builder.”
The Funks said while some kids may not be suited for sports or related activities, being involved in the LEGO League also teaches teamwork and cooperation.
“The kids took initiative and ownership in their projects,” Jennifer said. “They came up with their own ideas and solutions. There is room for them to be creative.”
PHOTO: Those who won third place in their LEGO League robotics competition are, front row from left, Christopher Funk, Jensen Wendt, Jayden Orcutt and Misha Miles. Back row, Daniel Kromminga (coach), Molly Miles, Esther Funk, Christina Kromminga, Lydia Funk, Riley Wendt and Thomas Funk (Coach). (Photo submitted)