When the nine-member Century Strikers First Lego League team at Lincoln Middle School in Mount Prospect organized last fall, their challenge for the year was "Senior Solutions" -- identifying a problem older people faced and developing a practical, cost-effective solution.
The students, coached by several of their parents, visited Frisbie Senior Center in Des Plaines and talked with people there. Then they brainstormed ideas on a variety of issues seniors face before settling on the difficulty they face reading information on their medicine bottles.
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Their solution: putting QR codes on the bottles so that when held up to a tablet or smartphone, an app will give the prescription information in a large, easy to read font.
"We wrote all our solutions on the board after interviewing seniors," said Jasper Pasternak. The group picked a QR code over a bar code system because the bar code conveyed a tiny fraction of the information that could be embedded in the QR code, he said.
"I had to give up some of my ideas and listen to what other kids had to say," said Matthew Guzzarde, talking about the give-and-take involved in picking a problem and finding the best solution.
"There were a few moments when it got frustrating, but we'd get back on track quickly."
Their research, creative thinking and teamwork resonated with the judges. The team took first place in the state among 80 competitors last month at the Forest View Fieldhouse in Arlington Heights.
Now, the parent-coached team is focused on improving its presentation to be competitive on the international stage and on raising the $18,000 needed to attend the event April 24-27 in St. Louis featuring 84 teams from across the United States and around the world.
"We totally realize we need to step it up," said head coach Jamie Beedy, who described himself as "kind of a geek" who is a video editor by day and often on his laptop in the evenings.
In the First Lego League program, kids work alongside adult mentors to design, build, and program autonomous robots using Lego Mindstorms technologies, and to create an innovative solution to a problem that relates to the topic of the year.
The robot racks up points in 2½-minute matches with missions related to the year's theme, things like finding the right medicine and getting up stairs.
"Basically, the Lego/robot part of the program is how we get the kids hooked," Beedy said.
The team members are eighth-graders Joshua Beedy, Jasper Pasternak and Ravi Trivedi; seventh-graders Matt Guzzarde, Donnie Malen and Kenny Orel; and sixth-graders Jake Doyle, Tom Katsaros and Daniel Gierczynski.
They meet and practice three days a week, or about eight hours, for most of the season. The kids also do research, write scripts and make props outside of meetings, and near competition time, hold extra meetings to work on the robot programs.
"It's been amazing to watch these nine boys learn to communicate, listen and work together as a team letting everyone's voice be heard," said coach Kerrie Pasternak.
In its 12th year, the First Lego League program involves more than 170,000 junior high age youth in more than 50 countries. More information is at firstlegoleague.org.