In first GeekWire Robotics Cup, school kids engineer a spirited and inspiring competition

Participants in the GeekWire Robotics Cup at the GeekWire Bash in Seattle on Thursday. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

“We love STEM! We love STEM!”

There wasn’t a more spirited chant to be heard at Thursday night’s GeekWire Bash in Seattle as more than 200 kids from across Washington state participated in the first GeekWire Robotics Cup.

The FIRST LEGO League competition, organized by the non-profit FIRST Washington, featured future engineers, designers and coders putting miniature robots through a series of three, 2 1/2-minute rounds. It was as riveting as the Bash’s annual dodgeball and ping-pong tourneys, just a little more geek pride and singing.

Here’s just a taste of the enthusiasm at this first-ever competition inside the Bash:

FIRST Washington inspires young people through mentor-based robotics programs to pursue science, technology, engineering and math careers, and at various grade levels kids compete in tournaments throughout the school year. Thursday’s action was among elementary and middle school students, where autonomous LEGO robots the students constructed and programmed had to complete missions under the theme “Into Orbit” as if they were lunar landers.

A LEGO robot on one of the game tables during Thursday’s “Into Orbit” competition. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)
A judge helps a team determine its score after a round. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Each team tried to complete as many missions as possible in the allotted time. The highest single score from any of the team’s rounds determined the winner.

Throughout the night, kids huddled around laptops and over piles of LEGO bricks, tweaking code and machines. Teachers, mentors and parents cheered and captured the action on smartphone cameras. Displays from each team were set up science-fair style to show off the work that went into understanding and tackling the “Into Orbit” task. Teammates decked out in festive geek gear cheered on each other and their robots, and they danced during downtime.

“Stronger than steel, hotter than the sun! Wall-E won’t stop until he gets the job done!” one team chanted during their round, with all the enthusiasm of a traditional sporting event.

LEGO astronauts. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)
Teammates work to position a robot. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Scott Bradley was the director of clinical information systems for the University of Washington for years, and now he’s retired and coaching his granddaughter’s Kirkland, Wash.-based robotics club called LEGO Lassies.

“Right down here they’re going to try to make that rocket go up to the top!” Bradley said, as he watched the team of 6th-grade girls and their robot complete missions during a round. “Now they’re going to try to put that tube inside the space station. … Then they’re gonna do our satellite … there! They did it. Isn’t that cool?”

The space theme, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, was even picked up in the makeshift names attached to the four tables where kids competed — Johnson, Vaughan, Jackson and Ride. The first three for the NASA mathematicians chronicled in the film “Hidden Figures” and the last for astronaut Sally Ride.

The spirited team from Shoultes Elementary, in Marysville, Wash. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Debbie Gotti, a code specialist at Shoultes Elementary in Marysville, Wash., was at the Bash with her team Sharks 2. She called the robotics league a great experience for students.

“We have a great mix of girls and boys,” Gotti said. “I’m really pushing our district for more robotics,” she said, adding that her kids built their robot for the GeekWire Cup in a week and a half — “dedication, dedication, dedication, dedication!”

High school teams from Issaquah and Mountlake Terrace were also on hand to volunteer and show off their advanced skills to the younger kids. The Issaquah Robotics Society has about 65 active members and 15 adult coaches and mentors, and those at the Bash wore gold ties and showed off a robot named Gimli, which was able to catch a ball rolled up to its base and then toss it back to kids waiting nearby.

Issaquah High School students show off their much larger robot. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

“We love to do outreach,” robotics coach Julie Irwin said, as she talked about the various competitions, including world championships, that Issaquah has attended.

Issaquah student Aedan Henry said students take on assorted responsibilities in the club, with engineers working on product and others working on other tasks. They just won an award at a competition for their business strategy.

“It’s sort of like a small, real world tech company,” Henry said. “It’s really great for real world experience.”

Eagle Power, a team from Nespelem, Wash., competes. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)
Eagle Power teammates coding and building. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

The event was extra special for students who traveled 4 1/2 hours to Seattle from Nespelem, Wash., a tiny rural town on Washington’s Colville Tribal Reservation. Science teacher Christina Christopherson said the kids had a great day in the city, where they rode the Monorail and went to the Pacific Science Center.

After a tough early round, the kids appeared bummed to not complete any missions.

“So we have work to do, right?” Christopherson said, as she pumped up team Eagle Power and sent them back to the drawing board — and LEGO table.

High fives for everyone. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

The competition wrapped up with recognition for each team, as they ran through a line of judges and volunteers and officials from FIRST Washington to collect high fives. And FIRST President Erin McCallum handed out several awards:

  • Rookie All Star Award — Cyber Cheetah 1, Chimacum, Wash. Awarded to one of FIRST LEGO League’s all-star rookies for robot performance, gracious professionalism and spirit.
  • Into Orbit Geek Award — Shoultes Sharks 2, Marysville, Wash. For the team that not only shows great spirit and gracious professionalism but also got into the theme this year, “Into Orbit.”
  • Space Travelers Award — Eagle Power, Nespelem, Wash. Awarded to the team that has traveled the furthest to participate in the Robotics Cup.
  • Gracious Professionalism Award — Galaxy Knights, Royal City, Wash. Awarded to the team that incorporates gracious professionalism into everything that they do.
  • Spirit Award — N.E.R.D.S., Everett, Wash. For demonstrating the most spirit throughout the Robotics Cup.
  • Robotics Cup Champion — LEGO Lassies, Kirkland, Wash. For the team with the highest robot performance score.
The LEGO Lassies from Kirkland, Wash., scored the most points and were named GeekWire Robotics Cup champs. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)
The championship trophy. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)