America's future problem solvers show their stuff

2014-01-25T20:00:00Z 2014-01-27T00:02:06Z America's future problem solvers show their stuffBy MIKE FERGUSON mferguson@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

If the Yellowstone supervolcano ever erupts, a Billings team preparing for the statewide FIRST Lego League competition Saturday in Bozeman has figured out how to deal with some of the spewed ash: mine the minerals as part of what would be the biggest reclamation process in human history.

There’s just one problem, one that only time will solve: Extracting the minerals requires heating the ash to 100 million degrees Celsius, a temperature that only nuclear fusion can achieve. Technically, nuclear fusion has not yet been invented.

The Krakatoas (the team is named for the 1883 volcanic eruption and resulting tsunami that killed 36,000 people)— Riley Mays, Kendall Smith, Hayden Behn, Daniel Vanek and Keon Lockie — were one of 13 teams of Billings-area students in grades 4 through 8 to try a competition dry run at the Will James Middle School gym in the lead-up to next week’s statewide competition.

FIRST Lego League (it’s an acronym for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology”) was founded in 1989 to inspire an appreciation for science and technology in young people. In this year’s event, teams are given two tasks: respond to one of nature’s furies, such as a flood, tornado or other disaster; and program and build a robot to perform tasks in a Lego-themed environment depicting a small town hit by the disaster.

Teams took turns presenting project storyboards and research to a panel of judges, receiving feedback so that they can tweak their projects during the upcoming week.

The Krakatoas told judges they hadn’t considered how to handle people protesting construction of their refinery, but noted the fusion process wouldn’t be radioactive, “because all you’re doing is putting together two lightweight atoms,” Mays noted.

“I learned a lot about my teammates,” Lockie said a few minutes after presenting for the judges, “and about how people would be affected by all that ash.”

After each group completed their work with the judges, the robots did their thing on four side-by-side tabletops, with the encouragement of parents and friends gathered in the school gym.

Required moves including positioning a supply truck and ambulance correctly and tripping a wire designed to position a rescue airplane.

Laura Gittings-Carlson, continuing education programmer with Montana State University Billings’ extended campus, worked with four teams. She said the program helps students in a number of ways, including problem-solving, computer coding and “a huge amount of creativity.” Students design their own T-shirts and storyboards, divide the research among themselves and “are constantly tweaking” their robot, she said.

“A lot of these kids have never tried something like this before,” she said. “We start by meeting one night a week, and pretty soon it’s up to three nights a week” leading up to the state competition, she said.

“It has been a challenge,” said Todd Mays, who coaches the Krakatoas along with Christy Smith. “It’s a time-intensive process.”

While the large number of coaches and judges help make the event possible, it also took some cold, hard cash — about $1,000 for each team to build their robot, enter the statewide competition and travel.

Sponsors for Billings’ first-ever dry run and next week’s state competition included the ExxonMobil Billings refinery, MSUB and the American Society for Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers.

The key is to “inspire a child (in grades 4 through 8) to embrace science, math or technology,” said Michael Hotaling, the emcee for Saturday’s event who’s also the technical department manager at the ExxonMobil Billings refinery and the father of one of the competitors.

Then Hotaling quoted Dean Kamen, founder of the FIRST Lego League: “The only difference between this sport and all the others is every kid on our teams can go pro. There’s a job out there for every one of these kids.”

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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