Lego robotics teams from Port Townsend and Chimacum are heading to the state semifinals in January after they competed Dec. 8 in the Olympic Peninsula regional qualifying event at Bainbridge Island High School.
Chimacum Elementary sent three Chimacum Cyber Cheetah teams to the FIRST LEGO League and STEM competition, while the Howling Chickens, the veteran team from the Port Townsend-based Northwest Discovery Lab, was joined by a younger team from the Discover Lab.
Chimacum Elementary Principal Jason Lynch said that, of the Cyber Cheetahs’ three teams of fifth-grade students, the one all-girl team placed in the top three and will go on to the state semifinals in January at Amazon Corporate Headquarters in Seattle.
“There were 18 teams there that Saturday,” Lynch said. “Many were from Seattle and Bellevue, and this wasn’t their first LEGO rodeo.”
Lynch congratulated both the students and their teacher-coaches — Josette Mendoza, Mitch Brennan and Madeline Webb — for their achievements.
“There was a big showing from our parents,” Lynch said. “There were about 30 kids there, and almost every student had their parents in attendance. It was pretty cool to see a group of kids and parents cheering together at an academic event.”
Jeni Banks, secretary of the Northwest Discovery Lab, said the Howling Chickens were looking to repeat last year’s regional-qualifying performance.
The Howling Chickens won the Core Values special award last year at regionals before they were treated to what team coach Danell Swim Mackey deemed the “exciting and eye-opening” experience of competing in the state semis at Amazon HQ.
Not only does Mackey believe reaching the event in Seattle made her team more seasoned, but she credited “the momentum of last year’s success” with allowing the Northwest Discovery Lab to field two teams this year, each composed of seven kids aged 9 to 13.
“We’re very excited that our success last year has brought in more kids this year, and it’s been great to have some girls on the team this year as well,” Mackey said. “We kept the veteran team as one unit this year, with the addition of one new kid, and we put the newcomers on their own team.”
Mackey said the Northwest Discovery Lab wanted the new team members “to find their own rhythm, to learn and problem-solve without being steamrolled by kids who had been through the process before.”
Mackey has coached the Howling Chickens alongside her husband Aric and Banks, with team parents cooking meals and attending practices, as the teams have honed not only their STEM skills but also developed their research, writing, public speaking and teamwork.
“The kids have been tackling some exciting research projects, including speaking via teleconference with the CEO of Infinadeck, the first creators of the omnidirectional treadmill, like the one featured in the movie ‘Ready Player One,’” Banks said.
Infinadeck CEO Benjamin Freeman and inventor George Burger answered questions from the Howling Chickens about how the two men envisioned the omnidirectional treadmill working in space, and how the teams could design a system based on the treadmill.
“They confirmed that the kids were on the right track with their creative solution,” Mackey said.
Ike Banks, a 13-year-old Howling Chickens member, said, “It was really interesting talking with George Burger and Ben Freeman. I didn’t realize they were going to have the treadmills in gyms and arcades so soon.”
Banks said the Howling Chickens logged 36 hours of practice in the week leading up to their Bainbridge competition and praised them for an “amazing” performance.
“Of the 18 teams represented at the event, the Howling Chickens took home two of the four awards,” Mackey said. “The rookie team won the top award for their research project and ranked No. 3 in robot game score. The returning team won the top award for core values and will be advancing to the semis next month.”