Shoreview Lego League teams storm state tournament

Ponytail Posse, a six-member all-girls team, finished second at the state Lego League tournament, meaning they will continue on to the North American Open Championship at Legoland in Carlsbad, Calif. The team is led by coach Norton Lam. Pictured with their regional and state tournament awards, from left to right, top row: Rose Lam, Sabriyah Taher and Meghan Froehle. Bottom row: Emily Elmquist, Nancy Koshy and Amy Helgeson. (Johanna Holub/Bulletin)

Five teams from Shoreview qualified for the FIRST Lego League State Tournament. From left to right, these local teams are: Imaginative Orange Pi Guys, Ponytail Posse, Masters of Disasters, Fantastic Five and Height Differential. (submitted photo)

Height Differential won the state Lego League tournament on Feb. 8, which qualifies them for the FLL International Open Championship held in Toronto, Canada, in June. The team is made up of seven members, from left to right: John Helgeson, Charlie Whiting, Grant Altenhofen, Katie Riedel, Nick Riedel, Grace Whiting and Akash D’Souza. Eric Engstrom, a judge, smiles in the background. (submitted photo)

Two local teams headed to national, international competitions

Move over, hockey. Minnesota’s got a new favorite sporting event.

The world of robotics is fast-growing, with leagues sprouting up across the country geared toward kids ages 6 through 18.

The city of Shoreview is well-represented in local robotics tournaments, particularly in the FIRST Lego League, which is for kids ages 9-14. In fact, 16 of the 550 FLL teams in Minnesota are based at schools in Shoreview.

Five of those 16 teams—Imaginative Orange Pi Guys, Fantastic Five, Masters of Disasters, Ponytail Posse and Height Differential—qualified for the FLL State Tournament, where 66 teams competed overall.

Two of those teams placed high enough at the state level to continue on to national or international play.

The five teams recently appeared before the Shoreview city council to present an overview of their robots and research projects. Council member Ady Wickstrom, who attended the state tournament, had nothing but glowing praise for what the locals had accomplished during the season.

“These are pretty incredible kids. I’m really proud [they’re] all from our area and really representing us very well,” Wickstrom said at the March 3 council meeting. “Congratulations to all the teams that went to state...and did such a great job.”

Dealing with ‘Nature’s Fury’

Although most people see Legos as childrens’ toys, Lego Leaguers have to put in a great deal of time and effort to get ready for competitions, which generally take place from November to January.

Each year, FLL organizers choose a theme for the season. This season’s theme was “Nature’s Fury,” meaning the game board and research project relate to natural disasters.

Teams are responsible for researching the topic, picking a problem within it, and coming up with a solution to that problem. All of their work is documented and presented to judges at the tournaments.

In addition to completing a research project, participants also design, build and program robots made entirely of Lego pieces to carry out a number of tasks related to the theme of natural disasters on a preset game board. The tasks are assigned point values, with more difficult tasks garnering more points.

The robots are pre-programmed to carry out tasks autonomously on command—so they have to work perfectly the day of the competition.

While that doesn’t always happen, two teams in the area, Height Differential and Ponytail Posse, had luck on their side at the FLL State Tournament this year.

Height Differential wins first

Last year’s second-place finish at the state competition has propelled seven-member Height Differential into the winning spot at the 2014 FLL State Tournament, held Feb. 8 at Washington Technology Magnet School in St. Paul.

In 2013, Height Differential, named for the physical difference in height between its members as well as their range of abilities, went on to the North American Open Championship, where they also took second place.

This year, their first-place win at state has earned them the 1,000-mile trip to Toronto, Canada, to test their robot and research efforts against 143 other teams from the U.S., Canada and around the world at the International Open Invitational in June.

For the research portion of the competition, Height Differential chose to investigate flooding and ultimately invented what they call the “Aikido Bag.” It’s made up of four parts: a water bladder, air bladder, plywood board and a flap. When the water bladder overflows during high water conditions, it presses against the air bladder, which causes the board to become erect.

The mechanism is inspired by Aikido, a form of Japanese martial arts that uses the force of the opponent against the opponent. In the context of a flood, the stronger the force of the flood water against the air bladder, the stronger the board becomes.

Coach Jack Riedel explained that the team worked with representatives from many fields to perfect their idea, and currently has a provisional patent for their innovative flood bag.

The team is fundraising to cover the cost of the trip to Toronto, about $16,000. Those wishing to support the team can make a donation at any Wells Fargo bank branch in care of Height Differential.

Ponytail Posse takes second

Adding to Shoreview’s prestige in the robotics field was the state tournament runner-up Ponytail Posse, an all-girls team. Their second-place finish qualified them for a spot at the North American Open Championship, which will be held at Legoland in Carlsbad, California, next month.

In addition to their robot, the ponytailed group built an iPad application designed to help Red Cross volunteers assess damage to homes following natural disasters.

The team learned through research that Red Cross volunteers currently work with paper checklists when assessing house damage. Those paper files sometimes get lost in the shuffle, the girls say, so they wanted to find a way to digitize the forms that would still be “intuitive” to the often-times older volunteers.

Although the app is only in “demo” mode, the team says they’ve been working with the Red Cross to improve the design, and the organization is “really interested” in using the app out in the field.

Coach Norton Lam says it’s important to note that in a typically male-dominated field like robotics, the Ponytail Posse stands out as an all-female team.

“The amount of research they do and their teamwork is amazing. I’m very impressed with the girls and the work they’ve done,” Lam said.

A ‘well-rounded’ program

Coaches for both teams emphasized the fact that although building and programming a robot takes a wealth of science and math knowledge, FLL challenges participants to gain skills in a variety of other areas as well.

“These kids are learning so much,” Riedel said. “Not only are they learning about robotics and programming, but also problem solving, communication, researching and marketing. They’re really expanding their horizons and gaining transferable skills.”
“It’s a really well-rounded program,” Lam added.

Both coaches were in agreement that presenting solutions and answering the judges’ questions has greatly enhanced team members’ public speaking abilities.

“One of our girls [on the team], when she came to us was really quiet and had trouble with public speaking,” Lam said. “She’s really come out of her shell. Now, I bet you couldn’t even tell who it was.”

As the Lego Leaguers grow out of the eligible age range, they can move on to FIRST Tech Challenge or FIRST Robotics Challenge teams, which are geared toward older kids.

No matter how they choose to move forward, the coaches say, the kids have already gained valuable insights and experiences from their time with the Lego League.

Johanna Holub can be reached at or 651-748-7813. Follow her on Twitter @jholubnews.


Ponytail Posse, an all-girls FIRST Lego League team from Shoreview, demonstrates a point-scoring mission.
Participants in the FLL, ages 9-14, design, build and program their own robots made of Legos to carry out missions pertaining to an over-arching theme. This year's theme is "Nature's Fury," which deals with natural disasters.
There are over 550 FLL teams in Minnesota, 16 of which are from Shoreview.


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