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Students hovered around a tabletop course Friday afternoon as an autonomous Lego robot wended its way through a series of obstacles.

The machine flung a plastic ball at a tiny set of bowling pins, knocking down all but one. The kids cheered on as the motorized robot turned and scooted up a wobbly ramp before it faltered and, finally, stalled.

“Yes, it’s balanced!”

“No, it’s not balanced!”

“10 seconds left!”

“Oopsie,” said one student with a puzzled smile, lifting the robot back to base, where it would begin another mission.

The students are the Dragoneers, the Santa Ynez Valley Charter School’s FIRST Lego League Team. The 10-member team recently qualified for the Los Angeles Regional Championship Tournament that will be held in Chatsworth on Dec. 15.

FIRST Lego League is a robotics program for 9 to 16-year-olds and is designed to get youngsters excited about science and technology, and instill valuable employment and life skills.

On Dec. 7, the Dragoneers discussed their mistakes and returned the Lego robot to its point of origin before launching another journey. The team spent an hour practicing in the school’s science lab in preparation for the upcoming tournament.

Teams are composed of up to 10 children. The 2012 Dragoneers are Logan Cantrell, Nicolas Dragonette, Jace Greico, Daniel Kufeldt, Nicholas Kufeldt, Kura Marmorstein, Coby Mazariegos, Kylie Monroe, Chris Scaduto and Asa Ware.

“We call this ‘Mission Impossible,’” said Dragoneers coach Paul Escobedo, who intently monitored the action.

The idea behind the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science & Technology (FIRST) Lego mission is to program a robot that will travel to different destinations along a thematic playing surface and score as many points as possible within a 2 1/2-minute round. Children are encouraged to create innovative solutions to problems as part of their project.

Escobedo, who has a background in mechanical engineering, guides the students as they puzzle over how to program or reassemble the robot to complete its missions.

Trouble-shooting among teammates takes more time than the practice runs. Failing is part of the learning experience, so when students fumble the programming, they create an opportunity to work as a team to sharpen problem-solving skills, explained Escobedo and fellow coach Lynnette Kufeldt.

During tournaments, teams are judged on teamwork, design and programming of the robots, and how the robots perform their tasks. They also must work together under the core values of cooperation, honesty and teamwork, according to the coaches and youth mentors, Kufeldt's sons, Brad and Andrew, both 16.

As part of the league competition, teams work on community service and research projects. The theme for the current competition revolves around “Senior Solutions.”

The students recently presented their idea to help seniors at Atterdag Village of Solvang: facial-recognition glasses.

“These wide glasses would have a little camera embedded to recognize a person’s face and put that person’s name and the picture at the corners of the glasses,” Escobedo explained. “It’s an extension of the problem-solving experience and it delighted the seniors.”

The group presented their innovation, called “Iremember,” through a rap video. “It’s got a memory chip so you can recall, all your visitors, one and all,” went one lyric.

For 10-year-old Kura Marmorstein, participation with the league is her favorite school activity. She said she heard about the league when she was taking classes on Lego robotics at Nitfit in Solvang.

Kura has always been interested in creating and designing art, specifically collages, so using computers and electronics to create the optimal Lego robot feeds her passion.

Her father, Todd, said the league’s emphasis on teamwork impressed him.

“I think this will prepare her for positive things later in life,” he said. “She doesn’t do any sports competitively, so for her, this is her team sport.”

The Dragoneers competed with 20 other schools in the Los Alamos tournament on Nov. 3 and took home two awards: the Core Value Inspiration Award, which celebrates a team that displays extraordinary enthusiasm and spirit, and the Robot Performance Award, which recognizes a team that scores the most points during the tournament. The Dragoneers were the only team to be recognized twice.

At the Santa Maria Qualifying tournament on Nov. 17, the Dragoneers finished 5th in robot performance among 24 teams competing from schools all over Southern California. Dragoneeer mentor and Lynette’s son, Brad Kufeldt, received the Teen Mentor Award for going above and beyond as a mentor.

Should the Santa Ynez Valley Charter School move past the Los Angeles Regional Championship Tournament – only one of the 24 teams will advance – they earn a shot at the World Championships in St. Louis.

Tournament director Ty Fredriks, faculty advisor for the Orcutt Academy Robotics Team, has been outreaching to several different schools to get more leagues up and running.

“The kids are actually solving problems and they’re designing, building, testing and redoing,” he said, adding that Lego robotics is a way of reinforcing the idea that kids can do great things in science, technology, engineering and math.

“Before this started, the only dreams for a lot of kids was becoming sports or movie stars,” Fredriks stated. “Now they’re getting to see that engineering, science and robotics is really cool.” “I had kids in the high school who really changed the course of their lives because of the robotics team,” he added. “Some had OK grades and weren’t very excited about school, and this program got them pumped up and now they’re pursuing college careers. The cool thing is that the FIRST Lego League starts them young, so they can be that much stronger when they get to high school and college.”