Sixth-grader Tyler Young tinkers with the robot his team, SPAC3 HACK3RS, designed for the Robot Game event during the FIRST LEGO League regional meet held Saturday, Dec. 8 at TVCC's gymnasium. (The Enterprise/Kristine de Leon)

With their robots at the ready, 16 FIRST Lego League teams from the Treasure Valley region demonstrated problem-solving skills, creative thinking, teamwork, sportsmanship and competitive play Saturday in Ontario.

Harper Charter, Four Rivers, Nyssa Elementary, May Roberts Elementary, Aiken Elementary, Alameda Elementary and St. Peter’s Catholic School were among the schools that participated in the Saturday tournament. Each team consisted of four to six students.

The theme “Into Orbit” tasked students with tackling issues faced by astronauts during space travel. Participants had to consider the lack of air, water and food, loneliness and isolation, waste disposal and recycling, and the need for exercise to stay healthy.

“The goal is to come up with an innovative solution that addresses the problem,” said Melodie Ayarza, Lego League coach at Nyssa. “It could be an improvement of something that already exists, using something that exists in a new way, or inventing something totally new.”

After months of building, coding and brainstorming, two of her teams – the Bionic Bulldogs and Spac3 Hack3rs – proved they had the skills to advance to the state championship, scheduled next month.

Ayarza’s teams tackled the tasks of cleaning up space debris, designing a GPS system for space travel and building a hydroponic room for the International Space Station.

The Spac3 Hack3rs designed a robot to pick up fuel containers that get ejected when a rocket is launched. The Bionic Bulldogs created a calming environment in space by providing astronauts with a way to garden using hydroponics. 

Nyssa’s third team, the Space Pups, mapped locations to place satellites in space for a GPS system, but the team isn’t advancing to state. 

Teams were judged on addressing an assigned problem, the performance of their robot, and their teamwork, she said. Each category carried equal weight in determining the winners.

“Judges look at how well the students work together as a team and how they help other teams,” Ayarza said.

Several teams that showed excellence were recognized Saturday. The Stingers from Harper were cited for in core values, and Alameda’s Space Atronics team was best in robot design.

Ayarza said her robotics team members learned how to share limited resources.

“These kids are not used to having to work with others, but here, they have to work together,” she said. “They learn how to figure out roles to work together as a team. It’s helped them socially as well as academically.”

Her students agree. 

“We learned how to work together,” said Evelyn Arcadia, a sixth-grader in the Spac3 Hack3rs team. “We do stuff that other kids can’t do, but they can learn how to do it.”

Her teammate, Raul Pascacio, said that they sometimes fight, but they figure out how to compromise.

“We all go to each other’s stations and help each other out,” said Caleb Woodruff, a fifth grader on the Bionic Bulldogs team. He said he enjoyed being a part of the robotics club because he loves programming and tackling challenges. “We’re doing pretty cool stuff,” he said.

Ayarza the students gained self-confidence.

“They also have this new sense of pride, that they made it into robotics,” she said. “Seeing them gain this whole new sense confidence is just inspiring.”

Nickie Shira, STEM coordinator at the Malheur Education Service District, agrees that the Lego robotics programs help students gain self-confidence. 

“They have more confidence because they’ve developed those problem solving skills, and they have the ability to communicate and work in teams,” said Shira. “The experience they gain from problem solving and being team-oriented helps them communicate with adults and industry experts, giving them that confidence in the future.”

Shira touted Lego robotics as a hands-on way to integrate a number of STEM and other subjects.

Shira said that three years ago, Malheur County had two Lego teams. Now, there are 22. 

Shira said she plans to continue working with local teachers and coaches to expand the robotics program to every grade level in the district, on up through middle and high school.

Ayarza hopes to expand Nyssa’s robotics program to fourth, seventh and eighth graders.

“I started the robotics program three years ago, and it has made a huge impact on these kids,” said Ayarza. “I’ve seen them grow. At first they don’t know what to do. But soon after they start working together and asking questions, they just become crazy researchers who are learning things on their own. They all get so excited.”

From left to right: Nyssa Elementary fifth-graders Antonio Mendez, Nathan Beck, Caleb Woodruff and Betzy Gutierrez Montanez of the Bionic Bulldogs explain their research and solution to the judges.

A judge inspects the Bionic Bulldogs' hydroponic plants after the team's presentation.

Nyssa Elementary science teacher Melodie Ayarza oversees three robotics teams, two of which will go on to compete at the state championships in Idaho.

A Robot Game judge sets up the playing field for the LEGO robot challenge.

The Aiken Shakin' Asteroids check up on their robot design to make sure it's ready to be deployed. Behind them are the Aiken Bacon Astronauts cheering them on.

Alameda Elementary's Space Atronics was another team from Malheur County that qualified to advance to the state championships in Idaho next month.

Nyssa Middle School sixth-graders Raul Pascacio (left) and Tyler Young quickly fix their robot during the robot mission challenge.

Four Rivers' robotics team competed in the Robot Game.

Two students from St. Peter's Catholic School in Ontario get their Lego robot ready for its missions.

Students from Harper Charter walk up to get their FIRST LEGO League pins. The Harper Stingers robotics team were awarded the Core Values Award. Meanwhile, the Robotic Hornets were awarded the Judge's Award for their "great teamwork, creativity and professionalism in all they do," according to the judges.

Reporter Kristine de Leon: news@malheurenterprise.com or 541-473-3377.