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DECATUR – Competition at the FIRST Lego League robotics held at Hope Academy on Saturday was not focused solely on the robots.

In fact, the Johns Hill Magnet School team, Eagles Unleashed, was more excited about its research project, Brain Explosion.

“We have a lot of (English as a Second Language) students in our building,” said Jayden Trostle, a sixth-grader who is in his third year on the team. “We have a couple of them on our team, too, and they're really cool, so it made sense to focus on them.”

The Brain Explosion is an app with a link on the Decatur district web page devoted to Johns Hill, and the students found and listed links to websites that will help English language learners with their academics. Some of the sites even offer Spanish options, which is what many of the ESL students speak as a native tongue, Evie Guttierez said.

The Lego League is for students ages 9 to 14, said Suzanne Broussard, who organized the tournament with Sue Kunzeman. With 16 teams from Macon County and nearby communities participating in Saturday's Area FIRST LEGO League World Class Challenge, four will advance to state competition. Leagues are also available for high school students.

Robots for that level cost about $2,000 to build, while the Lego robots cost several hundred dollars, but the design and operation of the robot is only a third of the score. One-third is the research project and one-third is teamwork and “gracious professionalism,” helping each other out, helping other teams, being good sports and working together.

That's something the Johns Hill team learned firsthand, as illnesses from strep throat to flu have struck the team hard this fall, diminishing the 10-student team to three or four some days when there was work to be done.

“We've had to be flexible,” coach Liz Bartimus said.

The research project and robotics as a whole calls upon the students to solve a real-world problem, and at Hope Academy, the host school, the Jurassic Hawks figured out that many of their fellow students lacked a wider perspective because they hadn't traveled, said Kenisha Singleton. Their solution was to take their tablet computers to the sites in Decatur to show them to their fellow students, explaining why they're important and, of course, having fun with it.

Seventh-grader Bashari Bond had no idea what he was getting into when he signed up for the team.

“It's a lot of fun,” he said. “I'm glad I did it.”

The Ulti-Mat Master Builders from Monticello is a neighborhood team started by Lisa Altan. Most of the team members go to Monticello Middle School. Altan's son Connor wore a red fez and 3D glasses for the competition.

“It first started in fourth grade,” Connor said. “I went to a FLL (FIRST Lego League) event.”

“We had to build our robot three or four times,” said teammate Sean Patrick. “The first time, we didn't like it. The second time, it was a good robot, it just didn't work for any of our missions. And the final time is when we got it.”

One of the missions, said Decatur Christian School's Nathan Weaks, who was nearby with his team putting their robot through its paces, is for the robot to recognize the color of a square and pull a tab the same color. That's not as easy as it sounds, and it doesn't sound easy.

Teams are not as focused on competition as they are on the process, said Shannon Mittleman, the Hawks' coach. Winning is fun, but it's not the point.

“This is problem-based learning at its best,” she said. “They focus on a problem and they're challenged to find a solution, and I think the kids all did a great job.”

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Staff Writer

Education and family reporter for the Herald & Review.

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