Ariona Dowhitt, left, and Fawn Reese, right, look on as their team’s robot goes about its various tasks. (Eric Stone/KRBD)

LEGOs are some of the most popular toys in the world. For most, they’re a fun way to build models and let the imagination run wild. But in Ketchikan, some students are using the Danish toy to learn about robotics, teamwork and sportsmanship.

It’s a little after midday on a gloomy Sunday at the Plaza mall in Ketchikan. People are milling about doing some Christmas shopping.

But in one corner of the mall, there’s a table set up with LEGOs. Four teams of elementary and middle schoolers from Ketchikan and Prince of Wales Island are putting the finishing touches on miniature LEGO robots. 

Their goal? Improving the city. Well, a miniature city. 

“You have to make a project on how to make the world better,” said Ketchikan student Satcha Breese. He’s with DJ Mama, one of two teams from the mixed-grade charter school.

The theme for this year’s FIRST Lego League competition is “City Shaper,” and it challenges kids to think about how to improve their built environment. Part of that is an original model, and teams get bonus points for outfitting their building with things like toy solar panels or rooftop gardens.

Here’s how it works: the teams build and program their robots to complete certain jobs — moving their original creation and some other colored blocks to circles on the printed rubber mat, freeing up a stuck swing, even clearing a traffic jam. 

“Each obstacle has a different set of points,” said Jacob Alguire, a math and science teacher at Ketchikan Charter School. He coaches the school’s two teams, DJ Mama and the Dragon Knights.

“Like the traffic jam right there with the gray base and the blue levers. You get 10 points by lifting that up and effectively clearing the traffic jam.”

Referees add up the score at the end of the round. But they deduct points if team members touch their robots while they go about their tasks.

“The robot is supposed to autonomously solve all of these missions,” Alguire said.

It’s a three-round competition, so if something doesn’t go right the first time, the kids can go back and tweak their robot and its program. 

The Dragon Knights made some changes before the second round, says team member Chandler Reeve.

“We dragged our blocks way too far, so then we went back to our program and we change it to go, like, not really that far from now we’re going to see how that goes this time,” Reeve said.

Of course, not everything always goes according to plan.

Coach Alguire says the Dragon Knights missed one crucial step before round two.

“So they forgot to upload the program that they want,” he explained. “And right now they’re scrambling in the very last second, like you would in any type of sports show — they’re trying to fix everything at the last minute and see if they can get it working before they go up on the table.”

Over on DJ Mama’s side of the table, team member Fawn Breese says the program is a great way for kids to learn sportsmanship and team problem-solving.

“It teaches teamwork and how to not be mean to the other teams and that we’re all people and we have to work together,” Breese said.

DJ Mama’s teamwork paid off — they ended up outscoring their competitors by 70 points. 

Lori Ortiz helped organize today’s tournament. She wants to see the program expand to other Ketchikan-area schools and communities throughout Southeast.

“We actually have some of these resources ready to go,” Ortiz said. “We have some computers, we have the LEGO programming, and we have the robot brains and the LEGO pieces. We just really want to build up more teams.”

The only thing organizers say they need? More adults to volunteer as coaches so they can expand the competition in the years to come.