WINDHAM — Windham High School became Mission Control on Sunday, when hundreds of New Hampshire students ventured into orbit during the FIRST LEGO League state championship.
Participants ranging in age from 9 to 14 took on the challenges in the competition, which this year was themed “Into Orbit,” using a robot built and programmed by the kids to execute tasks while demonstrating skills like problem solving, teamwork and creative thinking.
“The robot is only one part. The experience is really about the skills that they learn,” said Ken St. Hilaire, a senior mentor with Manchester-based FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology).
The 1st place Champion’s Award went to “The Wisdom Hunters” of Nashua, who will represent the state at the World Championship in Detroit in April.
The competition featured 50 teams made up of up to 10 kids who had been designing, building, programming and plotting strategies since the Into Orbit challenges were announced Aug. 1. Teams were judged on the overall project, which included identifying potential problems and solutions humans face in space; robot design and FIRST core values such as teamwork and sportsmanship.
“It’s really fun to stay after school and work together as a team,” said Josie MacDonald, a seventh-grader from Litchfield and member of the “Inspiration” team.
Litchfield was also represented by the “Circuit Breakers,” “Raiders of the Lego Bin” and the “Legendary Block Hounds.” The kids got creative and had a little fun with other team names like the “Cosmobots” from Lebanon, “Pi Heads Squared” from North Hampton and Hooksett’s “The Cows That Jumped Over The Moon.”
Members of the “Blue Box” team from Windham also wore blue NASA jump suits as they carried out their missions on the 4-foot by 8-foot playing surface, using the robot to adjust miniature solar panels and cross moon “craters” to extract samples.
“I think our timing was good that round,” Sophia Berube said after the Circuit Breakers completed an afternoon round. “Our transition was a lot smoother that time.”
As the Circuit Breakers prepared, their schoolmates cheered them on from the bleachers and danced as Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” blared from the public-address system.
Fun was an unwritten part of the agenda for the day, which started at 8 a.m. and went until late afternoon. Winners had a shot at reaching international competition next spring.
“It’s amazing to work with the FIRST LEGO League students — just to see how much they learn and grow and the confidence they gain,” said John Bugeau, a deputy vice president of engineering electronics systems for BAE Systems, Inc., Sunday’s sponsor and longtime supporter of FIRST programs.
“What we find is the earlier you get young people into space technology and the earlier in their lives you take the mystery out of it, the more apt they are to enjoy it and consider a career in STEM,” Bugeau said.
Frank Grossman, state director of FIRST, said it’s especially rewarding to see the generations of FIRST competitors grow up.
“They become engineers and it’s because of this — you can see it,” Grossman said.