COLLEGE PLACE -- The young and the little took on some big concepts in engineering -- calibration, alignment, traction, failure and especially success -- as they honed their scientific skills Sunday at Walla Walla University's fifth annual North Pacific Regional Robotics Challenge.
For the Pocatello Falcons, as well as two dozen other teams form as far away as Billings, Mont., it was a chance to maneuver their Lego robots through a series of obstacles while judges reviewed and ranked their robot's performance.
"Ugh," Sarah Martinez let out, as the Falcon's robot knocked into the Lego pylon of a bridge, instead of maneuvering under it.
"I didn't do that before," she added.
Her fellow team member, Jacob Lifshay, 15, corrected her, "So far it has missed every single time."
A few seconds later the robot, which has electronic sensors that let it follow a dark line on a white table top, managed to hook one of several rings that were set along its path. As it did the five members of the Falcons let out a chorus of "oohs" for having completed one the critical tasks in the competition.
To the bystander, the First Lego League competition may seem nothing more than just the chance for 150 kids to play together in the campus gymnasium, as they snap together building blocks. But to Walla Walla University engineering instructor Douglas M. Logan, this is the stuff that engineers are made of.
"It's a bigger thing than just robots. The point of it is to get students thinking about math, science and engineering and computer science as potential careers for them, and to motivate them to take as much math and science in high school and do well in these classes," Logan said.
In addition to encouraging kids to think scientifically, this national competition also has participants thinking globally. Last year's competition had students working on global climate problems. And this year students were asked to solve the various transportation problems faced around the world.
Team presentations were made, judged and awarded. And an impromptu transportation challenge was also given to the participants: using Legos, the teams had to build the transportation machines needed to bring bananas from where they are harvested in a jungle to the dinner table at home.
"How many boats are you building. You only need one boat," team coach and father Charles Richert said, as he watched his daughter Lauren, 8, and six other kids work on making the imaginary machines out of Lego.
And while the Bricks sat in a circle building their boats and trucks and farm equipment, it was hard to tell if they were learning or playing.
It was both.
"She is enjoying the experience and she's starting to think analytically," Richert said.
First Lego League is a national competition for students K-8, with advanced individual competitions for high school students.
Sunday's competition at Walla Walla University was the first of two competitions the university sponsors each year. The smaller final competition will take place in May.
To learn more about First Lego competitions, go online to www.usfirst.org or call (603) 666-3906.