The brochure explaining the FIRST Robotics Competition describes the program as a “sport of the mind.”
Emmanual Alvarez, a 10-year-old fifth-grader at Fritsch Elementary School, makes it more simple.
“It’s Legos,” he said. “And Legos are awesome. It’s just at a higher level.”
Emmanuel is part of the school’s inaugural venture into the competition, in which students must raise funds, design a team brand, then build and program a robot to perform a set of tasks.
“This is something we felt strongly we needed to get at Fritsch,” said Nicole Melscheimer, vice president of the parent-teacher association. “These kids needed an outlet.”
The school’s PTA raised money to purchase two kits to form a fourth-grade and fifth-grade team. Students had to commit to practicing four to five hours after school during the week, with some additional practices on Saturdays.
Teammates are presented a challenge. This year, the theme is natural disasters, with the fifth-graders choosing to work on earthquakes and the fourth-graders on wildfire. They have to research the subject, come up with an invention to help solve the problem, give a presentation on what they learned and program a robot.
Despite the rigor, Eviana McGowan, 9, signed up.
“It sounded fun,” she said. “This is kind of tricky for me, but I just need to get a little help and I can figure it out.”
Fifth-grade teacher Kristi Howard spent 30 years in the engineering field and said the program offers real-world training.
“You don’t do anything in engineering by yourself,” she said. “You work together as a team to analyze a problem and come up with a way to solve it.”
That’s one of the things Harper Lopiccolo, 9, likes best about it.
“I like it because it gives us a chance to all come together and try to solve problems,” he said. “The fun part is solving the problem because it seems really hard. Challenge is fun sometimes.”
The teams will participate in a scrimmage Nov. 9, then compete in the Northern Nevada FIRST Lego League Championship Tournament at the University of Nevada, Reno, on Dec. 8.
While science and engineering programs can be dominated by men, the teams are pretty evenly divided between boys and girls. That’s no surprise to Rosalind Macy, 10.
“I think we can do all the things boys can do,” she said.