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MMS Lego League going to state

Johan Harworth, a member of the Meyer Middle School Lego Robotics Club, shows the programming software the club members use to program their lego robots. They program the robots to perform specific tasks as part of the FIRST Lego League competitions they take part in. Gretta Stark / RiverTown Multimedia.

Athletes haven't been the only ones practicing after school, working hard, and preparing for competitions at Meyer Middle School. The MMS Lego Robotics Club's three teams have been working hard, training and competing this year.

The three MMS Lego league teams, and one Greenwood Elementary team, represented River Falls in a regional tournament in La Crosse Nov. 4. Two of those teams (STEAM Powered and LESS is More) went on to the next level and advanced to sectionals. LESS is More is now preparing to compete at the state tournament in February. This will be the first time one of the school district's Lego League teams has gone to the state competition.

When asked if they were excited about LESS is More going to state, every student present for a recent Lego Robotics Club meeting gave a resounding "Yes."

"We're just really proud of the kids," said coach Jeremy Odegard, "and we're proud to live in a community where this sort of thing is possible. River Falls is a pretty special community. If a student does something and has value, then there are lots of people who are willing to rally around and support that idea, so (we're) blessed to live in a community like this."

The Lego Robotics Club first started when Greenwood principal Nate Schurman asked parent volunteers to start a STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) initiative at the elementary level. Odegard and Ross Simonson volunteered, and LESS is More was formed in 2015.

When their kids moved up to the middle school, they worked to bring the Lego Robotics Club with them to the middle school.

Odegard said he wanted to recognize the leadership of MMS principal Mark Chapin, as well.

Odegard hoped the Lego Robotics Club would grow, but did not expect it to grow as fast as it did.

"This has exceeded my expectations," he said.

There are now three Meyer Middle School teams and one Greenwood team in the district that compete.

The project

Each team uses a Lego Mindstorm kit to build and program a robot to perform tasks set each year by the FIRST LEGO League. There's a different challenge set each year. The kids are also asked to research a real-world problem. This year the kids focused on "Hydrodynamics."

In addition to working with the robots, each team also creates a project.

LESS Is More focused on improving irrigation efficiency with the "Drew Bot."

"It goes out and individually takes how much, like, moistness, the plant needs, and then gives it the exact amount of water," said LESS is More member Andrew Simonson.

The idea, he said, is to make sure each plant gets the water it needs, and no water is wasted. Current irrigation systems only reach about 80 percent of the field, he said.

"Our project has been our greatest strength this year," said LESS is More member Alexander Tlougan. "We got the best project award in regionals and we got the best presentation award in sectionals."

Elizabeth Salmon pointed out that the group did more than just invent the idea of the Drew Bot; the group researched the robot, looking into things like financing, how much water plants really need, and when they need to be watered. The group collaborated with WinField United and UW-River Falls.

The STEAM Powered team created a "Well Barrow," a wheelbarrow with a water filtration system. Water can be put directly in the top tank, it goes through a filtration process including an activated carbon filter and a UV light chamber, to make it safe to drink.

"Some areas that would help are developing countries," said Johan Harworth. "It could also help people that have just suffered through the giant hurricanes that happened in the past couple months."

He said the "Well Barrow" could also help people in areas affected by wildfires.

H2 ROBO Geeks focused on the issue of the Kinnickinnic River and its hydroelectric dams. The group members researched the dams, how the dams could be restored and repurposed, and how to allow more water flow and more electricity.

They proposed turbines, gates to keep fish from being trapped in turbines and a fish ladder to help fish get across the dams.

A lot of learning

The kids on each team said they feel they've learned a lot more than robotics and programming.

"We've learned a lot from doing research," said Simonson. "But we've also done a lot together, and learned a lot from each other ... basically, just help each other and no idea is really a bad idea. You have to compromise sometimes, and sometimes there there will be mistakes, so you kinda just have to learn to deal with them, I guess."

"I think our whole team learned a lot about teamwork," said LESS is More team member Emily Odegard.

Nolan Stellrecht, of STEAM Powered, said he learned how to program this year, and more.

"I've learned what it's like to be in front of judges, and being asked questions," he said. "And I learned not to say, 'I don't' know' in front of a judge."

Jack Stang, of STEAM Powered, said he learned a lot about how water is cleaned and the number of people who die each year due to water-contamination issues.

Coach Sonia Harworth said it's been fun to see how much the kids grow.

"They are so different, their personalities are different, they all come from different backgrounds, the way they learn is different," she said. "So for them all to come together, what you see here is the way they socialize and ... we have three teams but we are definitely one club."

She said the kids are supportive of each other.

The kids are also proud of Coach Odegard.

Odegard, who coaches LESS is More with Ross Simonson, and Betsy Schrader, was nominated by his team for a Best Coach award, which he received.

Emily Odegard, his daughter, is proud of her dad.

The whole group emphatically said "yes" when asked if they were proud of Coach Odegard. He himself said he didn't realize he was being given the award at first.

"I thought they said somebody else's name," he said. "I was shocked. I was flattered."

"It was really cool to hear Jeremy's name called for best coach award," said Tlougan.

The teams

Meyer Middle School Lego League teams include:

LESS Is More

(team formed in 2015) - Project Topic: Improving Irrigation Efficiency

• Alex Tlougan

• Andrew Simonson

• Derek Weissinger

• Devan Schrader

• Elizabeth Sammon

• Emily Odegard

• Jacob Moore

• Coaches: Jeremy Odegard, Ross Simonson, Betsy Schrader

STEAM Powered

(team formed in 2016) - Project Topic: Creating Clean Drinking Water

• Austen Bartholomew

• Jack Stang

• Joe Kerr

• Johan Harworth

• John Sullivan

• Noah Follstad

• Nolan Stellrecht

• Scott Bremer

• Coaches: Sonia Harworth, Pete Bremer, Sue Suydam

H2 ROBO Geeks

(team formed in 2017) - Project Topic: Repurposing Hydroelectric Dams

• Connor Rude

• Ethan Engler

• Finley Halvorson

• James Farrelly

• Joshua Muszynski

• Keagan Carlson

• Marcus Schoettle

• Nolan Tody

• Reese Hammond

• Coaches: Sonia Harworth, Vanessa Maione, Kate Miller-Chell

The Greenwood team:

James Sharpley, Kyler Campuzano, John Swenson, Gavin Borgerson, Owen Phelps, Emma Mithun, Isabelle Skogen and Matthew Salfer, with coaches Judy Lefeber and Sara Swenson.

The Greenwood Lego robotics group started in the spring of 2017.

Their team's project this year was "Toilets...Making flush your efficient."

Their focus was working on a waterproof talking toilet sensor that reminds people which direction to move the flush handle for the dual flushing option on the school toilets.

Gretta Stark

Gretta Stark has been a reporter for the River Falls Journal since July of 2013. She previously worked as a reporter for the New Richmond News from June 2012 to July 2013. She holds a BA in Print and Electronic Media from Wartburg College.

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