Trash Trek: Kids solve industry issues in Lego competition

Lego-building has been a pastime engrained into the memories of our childhood. Castles, houses, and pirate ships were creations that we considered masterpieces, the colorful bricks constructed in ways that allowed us to build magic from a box.

Unlike many of our favorite childhood toys, Legos are still being used today. However, one group of children is advancing beyond many of our architectural limits to create scientific Lego robots that suggest solutions to the industry's biggest problems.

The FIRST Lego League is a competition that was founded in 1998 by Dean Kaman, who wanted to encourage children to celebrate engineering and science. (FIRST, which has members from all over the world, is an acronym for "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.") Each year, the competitors ages 9 to 14 are tasked with a topic on which to focus. This year, the topic is "Trash Trek." 

26,000 teams from 80 countries have been asked to pick a problem relating to the waste and recycling industry, figure out what's already being done to solve the problem, and improve a solution or develop a new solution all together. In order to do this, the teams are encouraged to do research and talk to local experts regarding the issues they're trying to solve. 

2014 Competition

Kim Wierman, director of the FIRST Lego League, explained that the children are tackling some of the biggest problems facing the trash and recycling industry today. Wierman listed everything from food waste to space junk to figuring out how to best dispose of diapers. Some teams are even trying to develop ways to better educate consumers on how to recycle, possibly by building apps that could be used across the industry.

"Really no issue is too big for us to consider because these kids are amazing when you unleash them," Wierman said. "I have no doubt we’re going to see some really amazing solutions."

The competitions are regional, with about 800 qualifying events and 100 championship events happening across the US and Canada. In 2016, there will be a world festival in St. Louis where the top performing teams are invited to compete. This year's competitors were presented with their challenge in August, and will compete in competitions from January to March, depending on their regions.

Once the teams choose the problems they'd like to tackle, they're faced with a multi-layer competition. First, the challengers use the Lego Mindstorm product  a robotic brick that is programmable to design a robot that will be used to complete a set of tasks on a game field. The teams have less than three minutes to complete 15 "missions" with the robot, such as picking up items and disposing of them into the correct bins. 

2014 Competition

Next, the challengers must present the solutions to their chosen waste industry issue to a panel of judges, all of whom are volunteers from the respective regions. At the end of the competition, the teams are judged on robot design, project solution, and overall collaboration, teamwork, and "gracious professionalism." Cash prizes and the chance of a product design or patent are all up for grabs at the championship events.

"There have been ideas that have been generated in the past that have actually been implemented. Lands' End was presented an idea during our food safety season [in 2014] and they ended up with a new lunchbox design because it kept food cold longer. The kids got credit for that and got royalties on those sales," said Wierman.

Last year's theme of food safety generated impressive ideas from the contestants. One team developed an idea for a food packaging barcode that could be placed on food that needed constant refrigeration, erasing itself if the food was left at a temperature that was too high. With the barcode erased, grocery stores would know that the product was left at dangerous temperatures and would not sell the product. The team of 12-year-olds was awarded a patent. 

2014 Competition

"We get everything from simple solutions to really sophisticated, high-tech things that may be implemented," said Wierman.

Courtney Weiss, a STEM AmeriCorps member, has been assigned to work with the Juneau Economic Devlopment Council in Alaska as an advisor to the FIRST Lego League competition. She is responsible for recruiting teams from eight elementary schools and two middle schools in the Juneau region, as well as doing administrative work for the coaches.

Outside of being creative and having fun, Weiss believes that the competition is important because it prepares the children to have a sustainable future.

“If they start learning how to recycle now and learning the impacts of how much trash they [dispose of] now, they’ll be more conscious throughout their entire life," Weiss said. "They could come up with the solution that solves many of our problems and they’re only nine to 14 years old. If they start these habits now while they’re young, it’ll just continue.”

Wierman agrees. "I think it's so amazing because the kids are completely empowered to do this. Nobody is telling them that they can’t solve this real world problem in waste management, so because nobody is telling them that they can’t, they know they can and they do," she said. "I think it's really important to the industry because they're not only sparking an interest in these kids and what they can do for something that’s a real issue, and it’s a very tangible issue for kids … We're creating this interest in these kids for future career opportunities."

2014 Competition

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Filed Under: Landfill Recycling
Top image credit: FIRST LEGO League