Building Tomorrow’s Engineers

Rock music is blaring, there’s all the pizza, pop and party snacks you can eat, and, with all the brightly coloured Lego around, it’s not surprising the kids are having fun.

But underneath the hype and excitement there’s some serious learning going on, and Saturday’s Power Puzzle challenge at Niagara College is an attempt to cultivate the engineers and designers of tomorrow.

Roughly 170 students on 21 teams from Niagara-area elementary schools competed in the third annual Lego (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) competition, with the top four winning teams heading to the provincial championships Saturday in Oakville.

The teams work with a Lego Robotics programmable controller to build a robot to accomplish a series of tasks in 150 seconds.

Points are awarded for each task successfully completed, and each team must also prepare a research project and make a presentation on its entry, said Stephen Rourke, a General Motors engineer who helps organize the annual event, and who was serving as floor boss on Saturday, keeping the competition on schedule.

This year’s challenge was based on sustainable energy, and the 15 missions were designed to get the students thinking about how their homes and vehicles are powered and about alternative energy sources. They studied topics such as wind turbines, solar power, oil drilling, coal mining, biofuels, tree planting, and hydroelectricity, said Wayne Schaefer, also a GM engineer who serves as the Lego League provincial director. Schaefer designed and built the Lego trophies awarded to the winners.

Specifications for each year’s competition are released in September simultaneously around the world, and 100,000 students in 38 countries compete, said Rourke, who is the director of engineering at GM. GM of Canada is a founding sponsor of the event, said Rourke, and some of the co-op engineers now working at GM were robotics competitors when they were in elementary school.

“The whole intent is to inspire young people to pursue careers in science and technology,” Rourke said. “It’s a game that encourages kids to learn about engineering and designing and real-life problem solving.”

And it may be a toy, but it’s a toy with a twist, Rourke said.

“It teaches children that it’s actually more fun to design and build a video game than to play one.”