Mustafa Subhi, 9, doesn’t know what he wants to be when he grows up.

He likes the idea of being an engineer, a builder or even a hip-hop dancer. But for now, he knows he likes being on the robotics team at his school.

“I wanted to have a lot of fun, to work with others and make new friends,” he said.

Mustafa, a student at Lee Expressive Arts Elementary School, was one of about 200 students from across central Missouri who participated in the FIRST Lego League competition Saturday at Jefferson Middle School. Thirty teams showed up to show off the Lego robots they’ve been working on for weeks.

Teams consisted of up to 10 students, who ranged from fourth to eighth grade.

Kids crowded in the auditorium of the school for the opening ceremony, sorted by custom T-shirts with their often robot-themed team names. The event was led by an emcee in a shiny silver blazer and a top hat that read “FLL.” The kids cheered when the emcee asked them, “Are you ready?”

At the event, Kate McKenzie served multiple roles: Aside from being the parent of a participant and Jefferson’s coach, she’s the tournament’s director. She said the skills the students learn extend outside STEM fields.

“The kids will tell you they just have fun,” McKenzie said. “There are so many really important life skills and professional skills in this that they kind of know and understand they’re learning, but they don’t know how important they are.”

The most visible competition was robotics, where the teams built robots out of Legos and used them to complete tasks, such as connecting pipes and delivering objects. Teams also presented a research-based solution to a real-world problem and were judged on core values such as respect and professionalism.

“It makes the kids follow their curiosity and take the initiative to research things on their own,” McKenzie said.

The team from Shepard Boulevard Elementary School came decked out with black cowboy hats rimmed with lights. One member, Reed Villasana, 10, said he enjoyed the teamwork and the computer skills he was learning.

“I like coding and working as a team,” he said.

During the competition, the teams approached large tables and set up their robots. Referees stood by in black and white striped shirts to score how the teams performed. The Shepard Boulevard team members said they got a pretty good score considering it was their first time competing.

It was also the first year for the team from Lee Expressive Arts. Katie Canepa, one of the coaches and a library media specialist at Lee, said the team met once a week to prepare for the competition.

Annalynn Ortiz, 9, one of Mustafa’s teammates, said she wants to be a programmer when she grows up. She became interested in the profession because her dad used to work in science.

McKenzie said that FIRST, the organization that puts on the event, has done studies of students who have gone through the program for several years. The impact is high, especially for girls, she said.

“Girls get discouraged in math and science and feel like it’s not a place for them,” McKenzie said. “But this program lets them explore their curiosity in STEM areas and also be creative.”

Robots might be the draw for the students, but the learning goes hand in hand.

“The robots and the robot programming are kind of the focal point,” McKenzie said, “but it‘s a much bigger and much higher impact program than just robots.”

Supervising editor is Sky Chadde: news@columbiamissourian.com, 882-7884.

  • Education beat reporter. Print and digital news reporting student at Mizzou. Amateur chef and lover of dogs.

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