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In robotics tournament, youth tasked with tackling community issues

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Kyle Martin, Staff Writer

Students from across Texas competed in a regional championship robotics competition Saturday, vying to show judges their comprehension of special technologies, team-building and professionalism.

"This is the Super Bowl for these kids," said event organizer Teresa Lenling, vice president of programs for the Perot Museum of Nature and Science.

The 10th annual North Texas First Lego League Championship Robotics Tournament -- presented by the Perot Museum and aerospace, defense and security company Lockheed Martin -- was Saturday at Parish Episcopal School in Farmers Branch.

Regional qualifying events for Saturday's championship narrowed the pool of competing teams from an original 435 to a final 60. Competing teams were made of Texas students -- boys and girls ages 9 to 14 -- and their coaches.

All teams were judged in three categories: project, robot design and core values.

Students had to design and code their own robots, built largely from Legos, to complete tasks in the "Robot Game" leg of competition in the school's gymnasium, which was divided into quadrants for head-to-head competition.

For their projects, teams were tasked with identifying a problem with the water cycle, designing a solution and sharing their findings.

And for core values, teams were asked to demonstrate "their spirit of friendly competition and learning together," with an emphasis on "gracious professionalism."

"They can be creative as they want to be," Lenling said. "These are our future innovators and scientists that will be solving [our] problems for us in the future. We need to get them inspired and engaged at a really young age, and this is a great program to do that."

Among the competitors were eight students and their coach from Corinth Classical Academy, who placed second overall at a regional qualifier in December at Braswell High School. The team, known as American Dream, presented their take on the year's theme: "Hydro Dynamics."

The boys and their coach -- Violet Dickson, the Corinth charter school's robotics coordinator -- spent months working project after project through trial and error. On Saturday, alongside their robotics competition, the team presented to judges their designs for phytoremediation systems -- using plants to remove contamination -- in Lewisville Lake, in an attempt to rid the waters of pollutants.

"Once they got the basics down, we really let them loose," Dickson said. She said her students, who began working toward the competition at the start of the school year, cycled through about five ideas before coming up with the water purification idea that hit home for many of them.

"We had a lot of projects," said 14-year-old team member Jett Graham. " It was kind of shaky in the beginning."

Several of the kids on the team, like Graham, live near the lake and often spend time fishing its depths. After years of seeing frothy pollutants cloud the waters, team members put their minds together to come up with solutions.

Their phytoremediation systems, estimated to cost between $12 and $20, depending on size, employ the use of specific plants whose roots would grow atop a piece of burlap that's attached to tubing filled with recycled water bottles turned into flotation devices. The roots of the vegetation work as water purifiers, the students found, soaking up pollutants such as motor oil and pharmaceuticals.

The plants must be changed out and burned after about two months to properly dispose of the collected pollutants, the students said.

Team members said they worked over the past several months with Joetta Dailey, the city of Denton's watershed protection coordinator, to find ways to best attack pollutants in Lewisville Lake.

"Even if we don't win, it's been fun," Graham said after the team's second of three events that day.

He and his teammates agreed the most challenging of the day's events was the core values presentations, and he added that his favorite part was research and development of their ideas and designs.

"It's been a great experience, the fact that we got here," said 14-year-old team member Takoda Klusmeyer.

By the end of the competition, the Corinth Classical team would not head home with a championship trophy -- but that wasn't a worry of theirs, Dickson said.

"They were just so appreciative to go, and happy for the experience," Dickson said. "They did a great job."

FEATURED PHOTO: Members of American Dream practice for the final round of competition on their private practice course. Sixty teams of students from around the Dallas-Fort Worth area gathered at Parish Episcopal School in Farmers Branch on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018, for the 10th annual North Texas First Lego League Regional Championship Robotics Tournament. Jake King/DRC