Waiting for the red cup challenge to begin at the Annual Western Kansas LEGO Robotics Competition on Monday, 11-year-old Delia Dixon explained the lure of robotics at Lincoln Elementary, Hays.

“I like how there’s so many different things you can do with the robot, and it challenges your brain,” said Dixon, a fifth grader. “You can make them say different phrases, follow a line, or sense something and move that thing or run away from that thing.”

Dixon and her classmate and partner, Mariella Dreiling, 11, were among 280 students compiling 95 teams from western Kansas competing in half-a-dozen robotic races at the Memorial Union Ballroom on the Fort Hays State University campus.

The LEGO Mindstorms EV3 robot Dixon and Dreiling built and programmed already had finished the “Follow the Line” challenge in 33.9 seconds, said Dreiling. While Eve, as they named their robot, didn’t have the fastest time, Dixon was happy, because “it worked.”

For the red cup challenge, Dreiling explained, “The robot has to remove three red cups off the board without driving off the board.”

Eve hit a snag though.

“We did two cups,” Dreiling said afterward. “We didn’t quite get the last cup, but it was really close though.”

Now in its 14th year, the robotics competition is hosted by the Science and Mathematics Education Institute at Fort Hays.

Paul Adams, Dean of the College of Education, was a professor in the physics department who helped start the first competition. An event unique in this part of the state, it has grown significantly since 20 kids and five teams showed up the first time 14 years ago, funded with a NASA-Kansas Space Grant.

While the space grant is still a major contributor, the FHSU event differs from other LEGO robotics competitions in eastern Kansas, Adams said.

“There’s no big membership fee, and anyone can do it, elementary through middle school, whether 4-H groups, schools or home school students,” Adams said. “Our events are challenging, but accessible to everyone. The biggest cost is your robot.”

Robot kits run about $500, and sometimes the Fort Hays sponsors use grant money to buy a school its first one. Students take the robot apart, decide what motors and sensors to use, reassemble them, and reprogram the software with drag and drop computer code.

Monica Dreiling, fifth grade teacher at Lincoln Elementary brought nine of her students on Monday.

“I started robotics three years ago so the kids have hands-on engineering experiences. This just increases their motivation to learn about engineering,” Dreiling said. “I’ve always told the kids, I’m willing to try and learn new things, even if it’s not a personal interest, so that they get exposure.”

Participation at the event this year is a new peak, Adams said, crediting the national push to get students interested in computer programming and the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

“There’s a realization we’re moving to a world where things are being taken over by artificial intelligence, and they’ll need to write code,” Adams said. “It’s where the job market will be.”

Standing among the crowd of kids in the ballroom Monday, Adams watched a student’s robot struggle with its “Follow the Line” challenge. “Oooh, that’s frustrating,” he sympathized. “Now it’s in a death loop.”

A robot that may work perfectly back home, he explained, may perform differently in competition, perhaps because the lighting in the room is darker or lighter, or the challenge mat and lines are different colors, among other reasons.

“When they get to the competition, you never know,” Adams said.

Seventh-grade teammates Lela Kenyon and Marissa Reever, competing with the Otis-Bison Middle School team, noticed it with their robot during “Follow the Line” competition.

“It did really well,” Kenyon said, “but some of the lines are gray, and they’ll see that and they’ll whiz out. So it just kept looking for a black line.”

Changing light sensitivity on the robot’s sensor might fix that, said Holly Strommenger, the elementary teacher who leads the school’s robotics club.

The remote control robots remind Kenyon of playing video games, something she loves to do, her favorite being Call of Duty Ghosts. Her specialty on the robotics team is building the robot, an interest she got from her older brother, a welder.

“I used to always want to help him, I like to build things,” Kenyon said.

Being in the club grew on her.

“At the beginning I did it just to get out of school,” she said. “But now I like it. I’m going to do it in high school.”

She and her teammate last year, Nevaeh McVey, took home third place in the Sumobots competition in 2018, the highest honor the school has gotten in the competitions.

“It was our first year and we were really surprised,” McVey said.

The Otis-Bison club has eight robots, Strommenger said.

“We’re very lucky, the school has been very nice about purchasing the robots we need,” she said. The superintendent and the school board think robotics are the future. They realize if they get the kids interested now, they can have a really good career in that.”

Brad Moritz, seventh grade teacher at Hays Middle School, has 50 students in his after-school robotics club, with 23 at the competition Monday.

Every seventh grader at the Middle School takes his Exploratory Technology class, which includes a three-week unit on robotics.

“There’s not an individual that isn’t affected by robotics,” Moritz said. “Robots are everywhere and robots are here to stay, that kind of assistive technology. You can have a job building robots, programming robots, operating robots, maintaining them, or designing them. So there are all kinds of careers in the field of robotics.”

Robotics is gaining legitimacy, he indicated, noting for the first time he’s getting supplemental teacher pay for sponsoring the robotics club. And now the Middle School, for the first time, will offer Robotics and Engineering as an elective to 8th graders, starting with the 2019-2020 school year.

He’d like to see Hays High School offer robotics, for kids who want to continue in the field.

“If they had a program at Hays High, I guarantee they’d have kids signed up for it,” he said.

One of Moritz’s students is eighth-grader Greg Hughes, who’s been in the robotics club for three years now.

“I think it’s cool to take things apart,” Hughes said, noting he can do the programming from his school iPad. “I like the programming part the best, but the actual building of it is fun too.”

His eighth-grade teammate, Preston Maier, says he started playing with Legos when he was really young, and that’s how he got interested. He’s fascinated with building the robots, “making sure everything is where it needs to be to perform at its best.”

By lunchtime Monday he’d figured out something to do differently with his next robot.

“On the ‘Whoops’ challenge, instead of a hook,” to get over the ladder, he said, “I think we should make the robot higher and drive over it.”

Sitting together at lunch in the Memorial Union, sixth-graders and good friends John McCord and Oscar Flores said this year is their first in the club.

“I’m not really a sporty kid and I thought this would be fun,” Flores said. “There are so many pieces and so much creativity, and with your group you can do even more.”

McCord likes building robots.

“I’ve just always had an interest in robots and movies where they’re fighting, and I thought this would be a good way to learn about it,” he said. “It’s fun to put our ideas together and see how it turns out. Because there really are no set rules on how your robot has to look.”

He says others kids should give it a try.

“It’s a pretty fun thing to do,” McCord said, “and you can hang out with your friends after school, and bring cool ideas to life.”