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St. Patrick School student Kiana Ayala competes Saturday in the first Lego League tournament that involves building a community in which a natural disaster may result and devise an innovative solution, at Lakeview Junior High School in Santa Maria.

Phil Klein/Contributor

As the clock winds down, the cheering from the crowd grows louder. They lean against the ropes, peering in to watch as their children, siblings and friends rapidly replace parts on their 1-foot-tall robots.

One of the machines approaches the starting end of a zipline and drops a lever, releasing the aircraft which falls down the line. The crowd roars in approval — they know that everything happening on the stage, from designing the robots to programming their actions, is the result of the junior high and elementary schoolers’ work.

That was the scene at the FIRST LEGO League’s qualifying tournament on Saturday in the Lakeview Junior High gymnasium, which hosted 23 teams representing junior high and elementary schools from Goleta to Arroyo Grande.

Ty Fredriks, team faculty adviser for the robotics team at the Orcutt Academy, watched from behind the teams as the round ended and the crowd dispersed. When he sees these youths participate in the robotics competition, he sees early training for college, work and life.

“You’ve got fourth-graders that are truly doing the engineering design process in fourth grade,” Fredriks said. “They’re researching a problem, devising a unique solution, testing it, prototyping it, revising their solution — it’s what engineers do.”

A core principle of the FIRST LEGO League is that the competitors should do all the work, Fredriks said. The computer programs used allow the competitors to assign “blocks” of commands that can be as simple as moving backward and as complicated as using echolocation to determine how far away an object is, said Orcutt Academy senior Hayden Downum.

“I can say this with complete certainty: This program changes lives,” Fredriks said. “I had a student that, his freshman year, he was getting like a D average and he just wasn’t into school. There was nothing that got him excited about it. He started his sophomore year doing the same thing. We started our team that year, we invited him on, he got excited about it, he ended up being our captain. Last year, (he) pulled his grade up to a 3.5 and now he’s at Hancock studying machinery and engineering. He’s going to be going to Cal Poly for mechanical engineering.”

The robot competition, in which teams’ machines complete specific objectives that simulate relief efforts after a natural disaster, was one of three categories judged at the tournament.

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The other two involve a poster presentation where students find a real-world engineering problem and propose a solution to it and an overall assessment of the group’s teamwork and core values.

Lorena Figueroa, whose 10-year-old daughter is on the St. Mary of the Assumption School team, said the environment at the group’s weekly meetings has taught her child how to collaborate.

“Everybody is challenged to do something,” Figueroa said. “So think that’s one of the main (lessons), how to work in a group and learn different skills from others.”