A Colchester-based MBS Robotics team of fourth through sixth graders will make their way to Detroit this April to compete in the 30th annual First Lego League World Festival robotics competition. The team of six took first place in a state tournament held at Norwich University last month.

“It was a surprise. We weren’t planning on winning,” said team leader Benjamin Hardy, before quickly adding, “Not that we didn’t work hard.”

Headed by husband and wife duo Benjamin Hardy and Angela Flores-Hardy, the team has competed in the First Lego League for three years. Their season runs from August to December with biweekly meetings in the Hardy’s garage to craft a Lego robot, work on programming and prepare a presentation.

The worldwide competition challenges teams of up to 10 members grades 4-8 to code Lego robots that can traverse a specially designed tabletop course and solve a challenge problem.

The goal of the competition is to teach STEM and communication skills to competitors; students must research the challenges beforehand to inform their presentation and solution.

 

“All STEM professionals can look back at some point in their life [and see] that some event or something that they did gave them a passion for problem solving,” Hardy said. “This is really an attempt to provide that.”

This year’s challenge was called “Into Orbit” and centered on long-term space travel. MBS Robotics focused on feeding and entertaining astronauts while also developing a program to grow fresh produce in space, Hardy said. They even had the opportunity to video conference with two NASA employees who hold posts with the International Space Station.

“They thought it was a very good idea,” said team member Remington Hardy, a three-year First Lego League veteran. “We thought that [growing] plants … would be a chore, but they said that it would be fun to actually eat fresh food and to be growing something alive up in space.”

Remington, 12, and his sister Ava, 9, are the Hardy’s children. Remington’s love of Legos and knack for computer programming drew him to the club, while Ava joined this year after seeing how much her brother enjoyed the competition.

“It’s real fun to do that kind of stuff, designing a robot to do specific things,” Remington said, adding this year they modified the Lego starter robot with flat edges to help it move straight along the table’s rims. For Ava, the best part of the competition was preparing props like plant canisters for their challenge problem.

The group plans to extend its season to prepare for the World Festival in April, where it will go up against 107 other teams from around the globe. Crew members will work to modify their robot and smooth out their programs over the next few months. They’ll also make patches and pins to distribute to their competitors.

Still up in the air, meanwhile, is how intense the team plans to compete. “We’re going to have to do quite a bit,” Remington said.

“The world championship is like real big,” he continued. “We’re not sure what we’re going to do; there’s a few options: Do we want to win it … or do we want to take in all the nations there?”

The team was funded through donations from Hardy’s employer and provides for six members annually. There’s no charge for participants, a factor Hardy says opens the club to all kids, and if the team finds a public setting to practice in for next year’s competition, he said they’d happily share their board with other aspiring Colchester teams.

“It’d be great to have multiple teams from Colchester,” he said.