Fifty teams of future engineers converged on Elgin Community College Saturday for a newly expanded FIRST Lego League tournament this weekend in which the grade-school students competed to make their tabletop robots perform a number of tasks related to human-built water systems.
Another 50 teams will compete Sunday in the 2018 "HydroDynamics"-themed tournament.
Winners from both days, as well as an upcoming third day in Champaign, will meet in a Tournament of Champions in Peoria in March.
Though the challenge of building functioning robots from Lego bricks is held annually, each year has a different overall theme and choice of tasks, Coordinator Sara Lubic said. Last year's was "Animal Allies," while next year's will be "Into Orbit."
Kai Liu, coach of the RogueBotics team from Sugar Grove, said the robot-making is only part of the competition. The kids must also make a presentation to judges on a topic based on that year's theme, as well demonstrate their core values -- a combination of teamwork, sportsmanship and personal resilience.
Dan Green, executive director of First Illinois Robotics, calls it "gracious professionalism."
"The whole point of this program is we want these kids to be well-rounded," he said. "How do they approach that if it doesn't always go right?"
Indeed, to the uninitiated, the differing emotional reactions of the kids were a better indication of whether the robots were responding correctly than watching the complicated tasks themselves.
Among the choices were simulations of repairing broken pipes, operating water filtration systems or simply flushing a toilet.
Melanie Mann said her son, Kevin, along with most members of the DREAM Team WaterWolves from Mechanics Grove School in Mundelein was probably most attracted to the camaraderie of the teamwork-based activity.
Both the Spring Grove and Mundelein teams seemed disappointed with their first-round performance. But after all 50 teams had competed, the RogueBots were tied for 6th place and the WaterWolves were in 15th.
Addressing the kids and parents before the competition, Green told them how in-demand alumni from First Illinois Robotics teams are to universities, which have made as much as $50 million in scholarship money available.
"This really does give our kids a head start," he said.
While scholarships still mean little to students so young, Green said he always sees their parents' eyes light up when he mentions it.