If you're curious about who will be building the R2D2s and WALL-Es of the future, you might not have to look further than a group of students at St. Mary's School.
That team, the Argonauts, is the only Rogue Valley team advancing to the FIRST Lego League Robotics competition, to be held Jan. 18 and 19 at Liberty High School in Hillsboro.
The team was one of four selected from the Southern Oregon/Northern California region — the other three teams were from Klamath Falls — at the Dec. 14 regional competition. They'll join 120 other qualifying teams from across Oregon.
"I'm blown away by what these kids can do," said tournament director Jamie Kaufman. "These kids are learning so much information."
The qualifying competition drew 20 teams of students ages 9 to 14 to the St. Mary's School gym. Using Lego Mindstorm robotics kits, competitors were tasked with a variety of challenges, all stemming from one ultimate endgame: problem-solving and survival during major natural disasters.
The competition, "Nature's Fury," involves several parts. Teams have to build and program robots that could assist in completing missions on set-up boards, with two and a half minutes to complete the missions. All scenarios put competitors in the midst of disaster scenarios such as tsunamis or volcanic eruptions.
"Things such as delivering a supply truck to a safe area, such as picking up people or pets from different parts of the board," said coach Kent Dauterman. "They have to strategize."
Teams must also describe their robots to judges and present a concept for a practical project. The Argonauts came up with an idea for an iPhone app intended to warn coast dwellers when a tsunami is inbound. Aptly named "iDry," the app will display evacuation routes, place pins on a map to show users where loved ones are, and harness wireless emergency alert technology to send concise messages between parties.
"It kind of works like an AMBER Alert," said team member Nick Johnson, 13. "It will display a pop-up on your phone and say, 'Oh, you have a tsunami in your area.' "
Students spoke to officials at Google and the National Tsunami Warning Center during the initial brainstorming phase.
Finally, teams were given a "core values challenge" in which they had to solve a random problem on short notice.
"It was great to see the kids support each other," Dauterman said. "I was impressed with how they kept their composure when things didn't go right. I was very proud of them."
The largest challenge, Nick Johnson said, was the mission boards, but their scores from all parts of the competition propped them up to a second place overall finish and advanced them to the state competition.
"I was pretty surprised. It was great to hear that," Johnson said.
Kaufman said these tournaments are intended to be fun but also are meant to instill the importance of math and science, collaboration and problem solving.
"To say, 'If this is fun for you, this could work for you as a career,' " Kaufman said. "Yes, this is fun, and everybody's having a good time, but the long-term is you're part of a team."