Bethel First Lego League Event Attracts Competitors From New Village

Dec 23, 2019

Students from Mertarvik compete in the annual First Lego League Southwest Qualifier at Gladys Jung Elementary School wearing the construction vests they wear every day.
Credit Greg Kim / KYUK

Gladys Jung Elementary School hosted the annual First Lego League Southwest Qualifier on Dec. 12. Schools from the Lower Kuskokwim School District competed in Lego programming and problem solving, with three teams advancing to state. It was one school's first appearance because this is the first year that the school has existed. 

Inside the Gladys Jung Elementary School gym, a group of students huddle around a Lego robot that they’ve programmed to complete a set of missions. On the other side of the table, there’s another team with their own robot. The announcer counts down as they prepare to face off. The robots zoom around the board, moving Lego buildings to complete missions. Sometimes they move exactly as they were programmed to; sometimes less exactly. 

Regardless of how they’re doing on the scoreboard, for one of the teams competing, today is a historic moment. This is Mertarvik’s first Lego competition. Naomi Olson is a teacher at Mertarvik, which is the new village site that’s being built to replace Newtok. Olson and the first residents moved over to Mertarvik in October, and now Olson is the coach of the Mertarvik “Naparcistet.”

“The Yup’ik work for construction workers, that’s our team name,” Olson explained.

Her team was wearing the same construction vests that they wear to school every day. They’re required to wear them from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. because their village is still in the process of being built.

“Our cheer is the beeping noises that the machinery does,” Olson said, then demonstrated how she beeps to cheer on her team.

The Naparcistet team says that this is the first time they’ve left Mertarvik since they moved from Newtok in October. Daisy Carl says that she likes her new home.

“Less muddy and running water,” Carl said.

While the Mertarvik Naparcistet did not advance to the state competition, they did win the judges' award for perseverance, and Carl says that she’s proud of her team’s effort.

“We tried our best,” Carl said.

Colin Stewart, one of the event’s organizers, says that perseverance is just one of the things the robotics event teaches kids.

“They’re doing research, they’re having to interview people, work with adults. They have to be creative, they almost get all aspects of school in just this activity,” Stewart said.

But the Lego programming competition is just one part of the event. The other part is to create an innovative design to solve a real world problem. One team designed magnetic pilings to level an eroding home. Another designed a road-freezing solution to prevent frost heaves in the road. Ethan Wheeler, part of the Bethel Brick Builders, wanted to fix a problem closer to his everyday. 

“It’s an adjustable swing,” Wheeler said, holding up a prototype.

Wheeler says that non-adjustable swings are a problem for tall kids because their feet drag on the ground. He says that they would sometimes throw the swing over the top of the swing set to shorten the chains, but that would just cause more problems. 

“The chains would get tangled and knotted; your hands might get pinched,” Wheeler explained.

So Wheeler and his team invented a solution that uses a carabineer to adjust the height of the swing. His team, the Bethel Brick Builders, will be one of three teams to take their innovative projects to the First Lego League State Championship. The other teams advancing are the E-Woks and the Breakfast Club.