Take several homeschooled boys, aged 10–14, add a pile of LEGO bricks, a robot, and a challenge to solve, and you get a LEGO robotics team! Our organization, ARCHERS for the Lord, Inc. (The Association of Relaxed Christian Home Educators), decided to participate this past year. During our first year of participation in FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) LEGO robotics, we built the game set in the basement of one of our leaders and used her kitchen for filming a video about the research project.

The FIRST LEGO robotics program emphasizes teamwork, innovation, and courteous professionalism in their worldwide competitions. The program kicks off in August with the announcement of the theme for the year. Past themes have included bone cancer and alternative energy. This year’s team was “The Food Factor,” and all projects were to focus on food safety. Each team works together to build a robot that moves and lifts objects with handheld robot controllers. There is a series of competitions, although a team doesn’t have to be part of the actual competition process. In fact, there are even ways to participate with just your own family; however, we found that the learning process the boys experienced as part of a group was well worth the additional organizational work on the part of the parents.

One Wednesday afternoon, the boys met around a homemade plywood table, and each chose a piece of the setup to build: rat traps, cold storage trailers, cows, a giant sink to wash germs in, and towers holding bacteria and viruses for the LEGO robot to contain. Their challenge was to remove food-borne illness and contaminants from farm, trucking, and fishing industries and to get the food safely to the table within two and a half minutes, using the robot they would build.

Within an hour of searching for just the right LEGO pieces and helping each other with build trip switches on the towers, the four boys became coworkers. I quickly realized that one of the dads, Eric Richardson, could be point man for the group. Other parents stayed to watch, but we found that the hardest job was not helping when we saw what we thought “should” be done.

One of the boys, Ethan Morris, excelled at creative solutions to building problems. He became the person in charge of actually building the robot and designing attachments to snag items ranging from a piece of pizza to a pretend “rat.” Parker Richardson became the programmer, telling the robot what to do and adjusting its movements by degrees in drag-and-drop blocks. Parker Browne and Tyler Jackson ran the robot and adjusted the field setup whenever “Destructo”—as they named their robot—went off course and plowed into the field animals.

Within the general theme of Food Safety, each team was instructed to develop a specific focus. At the beginning, our team started developing a program to educate food service personnel about the possibility of severe food allergies among their customers. This project was suggested by a boy who has personal experience with food allergies. However, just two weeks before the competition, we learned that our project was not exactly what the judges were looking for and we had to switch gears at the last moment.

We were told that our project was supposed to focus on a single food; we were told to research related safety issues and then design an innovative way to handle them. The boys had to learn flexibility and how to handle frustration. They quickly decided to focus on raspberries and came up with a 3-D model of a refrigerator system to mist botanical oils into a crisper in order to easily clean them.

As could be expected, at the actual regional competition our robot had a few problems. However, we did very well for first-time competitors, finishing just behind some experienced teams. Even more important, the boys were given a special award for “inspirational work.”