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Local LEGO Robotics Team to Compete in Tournament

"The Bricks" from Lake Zurich will take on other local schools at Lake Zurich High School on Saturday.

The members of The Bricks gathered around a special table and prepared to send their robot off to perform a task.

After entering distance calculations into a nearby computer, the robot went on its way, gathering up plastic fish and bringing them back to "home base." Then, the robot pushed one of the fish back to its original location.

The team of six boys now hopes their robot will perform just as well — or better — when they compete in a tournament Saturday at . The boys, all from Lake Zurich, participate in the First LEGO League. The boys built and programmed a LEGO MINDSTORMS robot that must perform a variety of missions, all centered on this year's theme: Keeping Food Safe.

"We got off to a pretty good start," Alex Li, seventh-grader at Quest Academy, said of this season.

The Bricks team formed last year and is coached by Stacy Mergenthaler, Matt Coover and Dave Miller. The team consists of Li and sixth-graders Patrick Burns, Collin Coover, Drake Heisterkamp, Justin Miller and Brett Rothas.

Mergenthaler said First LEGO League is an international, hands-on program for children ages 9 to 14. Teams around the world are given an annual Challenge each September, Mergenthaler said. The Challenge consists of two parts: the Robot Game and the Project. For their project, The Bricks researched E. coli, visited a restaurant and interviewed a farmer. They put together a skit about the subject that they will present at the tournament.

The Robot Game portion of the Challenge includes building, programming and testing the LEGO MINDSTORMS robot, with the ultimate goal being that the robot can perform a series of missions. Coover said First LEGO League teams use engineering software to program the robots.

Team members built a replica of this year's "playing field," as it is referred to on the First LEGO League website. The team then used trial-and-error to program the distance to and from each of the missions.

For one mission, the robot must move LEGO "germs" one at a time from home base to a small sink near the other end of the playing field. Teams receive two points per germ that is successfully transported, Mergenthaler said.

"They need to try to do as many as they can," Mergenthaler said of the missions, which are timed. At the tournament, teams will compete side by side. Judges award points not only based on the missions achieved but also on teamwork and the research project.

The hardest part of the Challenge was building the robot, said Heisterkamp.

"You have to make sure the robot is small enough to stay in base and move through tight spaces," added Li.

At Saturday's tournament, The Bricks will compete against teams from many communities, including Long Grove, Palatine, Kildeer, Deer Park, Wilmette, Elgin and Mount Prospect. Only two boys from The Bricks can compete at the table itself, while the other four boys will cheer on their teammates.

"After the hard work and a lot of fun, the children come away with a greater appreciation of science and technology and how they might use it to positively impact the world around them," said Mergenthaler. "In addition, they cultivate life skills such as planning, brainstorming, collaboration and teamwork, as well as research, presentation, and technical skills. It's really an amazing program for these kids and I am thrilled to be their coach and watch them progress."

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