TRAVERSE CITY -- Problem: How do you get young people as excited about science, technology, engineering and math as they are about sports?
Solution: Give them Legos -- plus gears, motors, sensors and software.
That's the theory behind the FIRST Lego League, an international program that challenges kids ages 9 through 14 to pursue education and careers in the sciences by using the toy bricks to design, build and program robots.
Or, as structural engineer Angelo Vozza puts it, "They trick the kids to learn by letting them play with Legos."
Vozza coaches one of three Michigan FIRST Lego League teams from Traverse City that will participate in a regional tournament Saturday in Grandville. The teams will participate with 42 others from around the state in robot games and research-and-presentation projects designed around the theme: Smart Move -- Robotics Solutions to Issues in Modern Transportation.
Qualifiers will advance to the Flint Championship Tournament on Dec. 12.
"This is the geeky engineers' spin on Odyssey of the Mind," Vozza said, referring to the creative problem-solving competition for students known as "OM." "Only it integrates a lot more technology."
The FIRST Lego League is the result of a partnership between the nonprofit organization For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology and Lego Group. Teams are judged on everything from robot design and performance to project presentation and teamwork.
The Traverse City teams are made up of elementary and middle school students from public, parochial and home schools. Each team created its own robots using the Lego Mindstorm Robotics Invention System. During the games or "field challenge" portion of the competition, the robots have to accomplish a series of "missions" on a transportation-themed game table.
"The field challenge is consistent, but the way each team accomplishes the tasks is unique," Vozza said.
As they prepared for the tournament after school Wednesday, teams Lego Royalty and Lego TC Terror commanded two rooms and a hallway at Central High School. The whir of a robot and the tapping of computer keyboards could be heard faintly under the din of excited chatter.
"I like robots and stuff like that and I also like the challenge," said home-schooler Nathan Jordan, 10, as he worked on a computer programming problem for Vozza's Team TC Terror. "And I like working with other kids to put this on."
Teammate and West Middle School student Alex Endresen, 13, prefers the research-and-presentation portion of the competition in which each team has to identify a problem in their community, create an innovative solution to it and present it in a five-minute program. He'll play a TV news anchor in a local "broadcast" in the team's solution to a familiar Traverse City problem: promoting the transportation of knowledge -- through distance learning -- to prevent the transportation of disease in schools.
"We came up with it beforehand just for snow days, and then the (flu) closings came," Alex said, as the team edited its script.
Team Lego Royalty is taking another tack with its project.
"Our problem is the pollution in the air that comes from cars and our solution that cuts down on pollution is carpooling," said Victoria Koro, 11, as she worked with Anna Cauchy, 10, to create a poster for the team's presentation. The friends also helped create a "Web site" to connect locals with nearby carpools.
"Right now we're looking for disgusting numbers and chemicals that will make people want to stop driving so much," Anna said.
The Central Grade School TAG and TCAPS Montessori students are the only girls on the team, lured by the promise of building a robot and making it move. That's just one reason why the FIRST Lego League is so important, said coach John Failor, a Sci-Ma-Tech teacher at Central High School.
"What we'd really like to see happen is each school have a team," Failor said. "If we got enough teams up here we could have our own tournament."