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Science & Space

Saving the world, one robot at a time

Robot competition aims to spur young scientists

By Thom Patterson

A member of Funky Monkey from Worcester, Massachusetts, cheers during the competition.
Science and Technology
Applied Sciences

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Organizers say this weekend's FIRST LEGO League World Festival might help save the planet, but for the thousands of kids putting their robots up against those of their peers, this is just plain fun.

Atlanta's Georgia Dome is awash in hundreds of colorful team banners for the three-day event.

When opening ceremonies began, event leaders stood in front of a giant video screen introducing teams from around the world who excitedly waved flags and filled the stadium with cheers.

"South Africa! South Korea!" an event official announced, prompting a roar from the crowd. "We're gonna have FUN here!"

Joining some 25,000 high school students who compete separately, hundreds of budding mad scientists from ages 9 to 14 each hope their mechanical monsters will win an award.

But a lesson in science and teamwork is certain.

The monsters are toy-sized robots made with the famous LEGO plastic building blocks, which have been around for decades. But unlike the traditional toys, these LEGOs are programmable computers on wheels, designed to perform nine tasks ranging from opening gates to climbing stairs.

Students compete by operating their robots in tiny, table-top arenas, where each robot must complete the nine tasks before time runs out.

Joe, 13, a member of the Funky Monkey team of Worcester, Massachusetts, says he wants to be an engineer when he grows up.

"Having success with the robots always makes me happy," he says. "I've always been interested in mechanical stuff like this."

Twelve-year-old Taylor has been training her brain for the BLANK robot team of Bismarck, North Dakota. "I wanna either work for NASA or be an actress," she says.

"NASA works with a lot of robots and when you build a robot you need to know what goes in it," says Taylor. "And when you're working with FIRST LEGO you have to figure that out -- how to set stuff where it needs to go."

'Sport of the mind'

The LEGO competition is the brainchild of Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway scooter. It's part of his FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Championship -- a global robotics competition for middle school and high school students.

The FIRST Championship aims to make science in schools as appealing as athletics. FIRST Executive Director Paul Shay calls it a "sport of the mind."

The idea is to attract a whole new group of kids to science.

"That's why we made it like sports," Shay says. "We know that if we just created another science fair, we'd be talking probably to the young people who are already interested."

This year's contest theme is called "No Limits," meant to inspire robotic designs that can perform tasks to help disabled people.

"My uncle has a disability," says South Africa's Know Fear team's Rudolph, 14. "I compete mostly for the robotics -- but also to help disabled people."

Shay says the FIRST competition aims to cultivate the next generation's intellect in hopes that nurturing scientific skills can solve the world's "big, intractable problems."

"We hope that the experience they have here at FIRST LEGO League is giving them the tool-set in terms of the approach, working as a team and taking a rigorous look at problems," Shay says.

Still, such lofty goals may not be front and center for burgeoning robot-builders like 12-year-old Christina of team BLANK.

"This is something really fun to do -- and kids should get involved in this because then they'll get a lot out of it."

CNN's Andy Walton contributed to this report.

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