Solving our challenges one robot at a time

Will Bain, the team’s robotics coach, and Missoula International School student and team member Grace Wandler, rehearse one of the First LEGO League challenges during a recent practice. (Photo by Martin Kidston)


Beyond the glee and rush of children leaving school on a mild spring day, a group of students gather around a table in a Missoula classroom. To someone from an older generation, perhaps not accustomed to the lessons of today’s educators, the contents upon the table appear more as toys than a science project.

Upon the table sits a mission map – a sheet of plastic with a black-and-white grid and a few random circles that serve no apparent purpose. Arranged like a small make-believe city waits a collection of LEGO structures that hold little resemblance to the colorful square bricks of yesteryear.

In simple terms, this isn’t your grandfather’s LEGO set.

The students at Missoula International School are at it again, stringing together computer commands to program three LEGO Mindstorm vehicles. The autonomous robots are set into motion, performing skills the students believe will help develop a better tomorrow.

“The instruction to every team was to find something about trash you could innovate on, whether you reduce, reuse or recycle,” said Will Bain, the team’s robotics coach. “They chose to deal with the problem of electronic waste.”

After months of programming and problem solving, the nine students on the MT Recycles team and their coaches, including Bain, Dari Quirk and William Knight, left the Garden City in February to compete in the First LEGO League state competition in Bozeman. Despite stiff competition from 62 other teams of equal age and caliber, MT Recycles walked away as the state champions.

The team’s yellow LEGO cup trophy sits on a nearby table, though it’s rarely discussed. Like any divisional champion, the team has its sights set on a far bigger prize. This April, it will depart for St. Louis, Missouri, to compete in the international FLL competition.

A world championship is on the line.

“In St. Louis, we’ll be there with 108 teams from around the world,” said Quirk, the team’s head coach. “That’s out of 29,000 teams that competed globally. They call it the Olympics of FLL. Montana only gets an invitation every three years, so we’re thrilled to be going.”

While FLL is based upon competition, it goes far beyond LEGO trophies and hometown bragging rights. The program’s core values adhere to teamwork, good sportsmanship and friendly competition.

On this day, the excitement among the students – they’re in 4th to 7th grade – is palpable and the comradery is high. The team jersey spells out MT Recycles using six symbols from the periodic table of elements, starting with Meitnerium (Mt) and ending with the equally obscure Einsteinium (Es).

Their black fedora hats are pinned with defunct computer chips.

“I really like technology – I do a lot with technology,” said 10-year-old McKenna Summers, one of three girls on this year’s team. “My dad is an IT manager, so I’ve done a lot of robotics and programming in the past. I basically like to take things apart.”

Quirk, who also wears the team jersey, said the program looks to introduce students to fields in science, technology, engineering and math – the so-called STEM concepts – at a younger age. The program’s timing is hardly coincidence.1

According to the National Science Foundation, the average mathematics literacy score among 15-year-old students in the U.S. ranked 27th out of 39 developed nations. U.S. students fared slightly better in science, ranking 21st out of 39.

Despite such statistics and efforts to improve them, only one out of five households has access to STEM-related programs after school, according to the STEM Education Coalition. In almost every state, figures suggest, children will get less time for science in elementary school than they did 20 years ago.

This classroom is one of the exceptions.

“I think this is teaching them the real life skills they can take with them outside of FLL,” said Quirk. “It involves presentation skills, teamwork and how to collaborate. A lot of it says that what we learn together is more important than what we win.”

Beyond building and programming autonomous LEGO robots, the team also has developed a companion research project. A major part of the FLL program, it tasks students with resolving real-world problems – problems based on this year’s “Trash Trek” theme.

On this day, the students line up to rehearse their presentation, one focused on electronic waste. Like everything else, the task proves to be a team effort.

“E-waste is one of the fastest growing hazardous waste streams in the world,” one student says.

“We learned that 25 states in the U.S. have some kind of e-waste legislation,” said another. “Montana does not.”

“Our innovative solution is to create a new law for Montana that would ban e-waste from landfills and increase e-waste recycling statewide,” says another.

The team plans to draft legislation later this year and find a state representative to carry the proposal to the 2017 Montana Legislature.

It’s easy to lose sight of the program’s goals when robots are demolishing LEGO buildings, operating machines to sort trash based upon size and dimension, or running compost machines. It’s easy to forget how things used to be when Bain was a child, or where innovation is guiding the future.

“When I was the age of these kids, we had fewer opportunities,” Bain said. “Back then, the most robotic thing you could get was a remote control claw-arm that pivoted on a pedestal with a joystick to control it. It had an arm and hand, so it looked like a robot.”

The practical applications for robotics have excelled far beyond control arms at the arcade center. Working autonomously, robots perform bomb-disposal missions, search for improvised explosive devices on the battlefield, and vacuum the floor when no one is home.

Members of the Mt Recycles team ham it up during an afternoon practice at the Missoula International School.

According to Robotguide, autonomous machines already assemble vehicles and assist people with limb deficiencies. New headsets can read one’s thoughts, allowing the disabled to power wheelchairs and play hand-free games.

“The Mars Rover has to be autonomous too because there are windows of communication,” said Bain. “They have to give it a program that will last for six hours. We’re totally getting these kids ready for that. This is very similar to how the Mars Rover would work.”

Grace Wandler and Claire Kinderwater, the other two girls on the MT Recycles team, have their own vision for the future. Kinderwater looks to become an architect while Wandler holds an interest in chemistry.

For now, the programmable LEGO robots have piqued their interest.

“At first, I didn’t really want to do this,” said Kinderwater. “I was nervous about the competition but after awhile, I got really into it. It’s fun to work on a bigger team, and it taught me more about programming.”

The team must raise $18,000 to compete in the First LEGO League world competition this April in St. Louis. Interested sponsors and donors can contact Missoula International School at 542-9924.