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Eagle Point Beaver Bots design Lego robots

These five Eagle Point boys are all 4-H members, but they're going a step beyond cattle and swine, nurturing a cybernetic Lego robot they built and programmed to travel about on a table top, wiping out disease, carting off rats and eliminating threats to a hygienic food chain.

The boys are members of a team called the Beaver Bots, and they compete in a league known as the First Lego League, which may be the playground of tomorrow's trendsetting robotic engineers.

Legos still are fun toys, but the way they're used in the FLL requires the use of STEM, or science, technology, engineering and math, skills, says Beaver Bots' coach Peg Sisul. "And they don't even realize they're doing all the math they're doing."

The boys shriek and cheer as their wheeled Lego-bot follows its program, harvesting plastic fish and sending a rat down a chute into a truck, then they note when it goes off track and plug it into their computer to adjust the inputs.

The First Lego League, open to youngsters ages 9 to 14, is a burgeoning worldwide movement designed to open kids' minds to vast digital frontiers being opened by new technologies, says Sisul.

The league stages regional and state contests that judge robot design and research in an assigned area — it's food safety this year — along with "core values," such as cooperation, sharing expertise, gracious professionalism and not expecting coaches to have all the answers.

First Lego League started in Oregon in 2001 and now boasts more than 400 teams, including several in the Rogue Valley. The local teams, joined by teams from throughout the region, competed in a tournament Dec. 10 at Kids Unlimited in Medford.

Four teams, including the Beaver Bots, qualified for a state competition to be held Saturday and Sunday, Jan. 14-15, in Hillsboro.

The other qualifiers were Circuit Chefs from South Middle School in Grants Pass, Flamin' Gears 4-H Club in Grants Pass and Kode Krackers 4-H Club from Roseburg. It was the first time a state qualifying tournament was held in Medford.

Teams in Oregon are funded by computer chip-maker Intel and Rockwell Collins, a defense and aerospace contractor with a branch in Wilsonville.

Sisul and other coaches have attended basic robotics coaching classes given by the local Oregon State University Extension office.

In addition to getting handy with robotics — and imagining what robots can do — the boys said they learned a lot about team-building and the innumerable threats to the safety of the food chain, with hand-washing making up about 70 percent of them.

In their research, said Zach Gorman, 10, the Beaver Bots learned about new inventions that use lasers in hospital settings to kill hand bacteria without harming your body in any way, so they designed a mockup of a box (you insert your hands) to do the job, although, says Sisul, they lacked the actual technology to make it work.

"We learned a great many things," said Joel Townsend, 11. "A lot about robotics and also food safety, like the many different ways you can get sick that people don't know about."

Added Gorman, "We're working on the problem that women have more of a chance of lung disease than men because women breathe in food bacteria while they're cooking."

The team has its sights set on getting a provisional patent for some of its new ideas and applying for the highest kudo in their field, a Global Innovation Award, allowing them to have the backing of professional engineers and marketing for their invention. A team of middle-school girls last year won the first such award, leading to the creation of a functional prosthetic hand for a girl born with no fingers, said Sisul.

The competitions are run by Oregon Robotics Tournament and Outreach Program, which delivers FIRST, or For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, to help reach those who might not access science because of race, gender or socio-economic status, according to its website.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Jon Sisul, 13, left, and Gordon Dauterman, 11, members of a team called Beaver Bots, demonstrate the workings of a Lego robot Wednesday in Eagle Point. “And they don’t even realize they’re doing all the math they’re doing,” coach Peg Sisul says of the Eagle Point kids, who participate in the First Lego League. The team is one of four in Oregon to qualify for a state competition, which will be held in Hillsboro next weekend, Jan. 14-15. - Julia Moore