FIRST Lego League teams compete in state tournament

He may have been wearing a hat shaped like a giant Lego, but 12-year-old Adam Cunningham is anything but a blockhead.

He’s part of a seven-member team called “The Stephen Hawking Project” that built a robot out of Legos. Last month, their Lego-bot won first place for robot performance in a regional competition.

Saturday, it advanced to the state FIRST Lego League Tournament, held at Nashua High School North. About 50 teams of middle school students gathered to test the machines they built against the best lego-bots in New Hampshire.

To get to the state competition, teams had to place in the top eight in their area’s regional competition. The top eight teams from Saturday’s tournament will advance to the nationals.

In the gymnasium, teams met face-to-face on one of four obstacle course tables to show the judges what their robots could do. Teams collected points every time their robot successfully completed one of the tasks, such as picking up a ball and dropping it into a basket.

The activity in North’s gym looked more like a major sporting event than a science competition, as music blared in the background, long lines of teams wrapped around the room and a crowd of about 200 cheered from the bleachers. The judges even wore referee shirts.Teams were given three chances to complete the obstacle course during the all-day event. Judges took the highest of the three scores.

However, the robot with the best score in the obstacle course doesn’t always take home the prize.

In addition to robot performance, teams were judged on robot design, teamwork and a research project they completed before the competition.

Every year, the research project is based on the competition’s theme – this year it was “No Limits.” Students had to choose a building in their community, offer suggestions for making it more accessible to people with disabilities and explain what the building should look like with their modifications to a panel of judges.

“The Stephen Hawking Project” chose the library in their hometown of Plaistow. After examining the building, the group decided the library needed video magnifiers for people with poor vision. They also decided the building should have a better wheelchair ramp.

“When they build buildings, they should accommodate for wheelchairs,” Cunningham said.

The group made a model out of Legos of how they would change the building and presented it to the judges in between their scheduled obstacle course runs.

The team is named after a British astrophysicist who is paralyzed because of a motor neuron disease called ALS and uses a wheelchair. Coach Scott Kukshtel said they picked that name for the team because Hawking does not let his disability slow him down.

“He’s a living example of the ‘No Limits’ theme,” Kukshtel said.

For their research project, the team of fifth graders called “Assistance for All” examined the Town Hall in Amherst. The five girls, who wore bright pink wigs and glitter all over their faces, explained that the building is currently being renovated to make it more accessible to people with disabilities.

Some of the girls said visiting the Town Hall was their favorite part of preparing for the robot competition.

But, for one group member, the way the kids dress for the competition is what makes it so fun. Almost every group wore some kind of trademark, such as a witch hat or bug costume. One team spray-painted their hair blue.

“I personally like all the outfits and all that stuff,” Taylor Bardsley said, tugging on her wig. “That’s the fun part.”