Have you ever thought about the disposable plastic straw in your drink at a restaurant? When you finish your meal and leave, what happens to the straw? Just ask the 14 elementary and middle school teams from the Capital Region who competed in the FIRST LEGO League (FLL) Regional Qualifying Tournament on Dec. 12 at Rensselaer. More than 140 students worked together to use their imaginations and creativity in combination with science and technology to seek ways to discover the hidden (or not so hidden) world of trash in order to make less trash or improve the way people handle the trash we make.

The global FLL competition was brought to the region for the eighth time through a partnership between Rensselaer, Hudson Valley FLL, and NY Tech Valley FIRST sponsors. The program kicked off with the opening ceremonies in the Darrin Communications Center.

As part of 2015 challenge, titled TRASH TREK℠, more than 233,000 children ages 9 to 16 from over 80 countries explored the fascinating world of trash. From collection to sorting to smart production and reuse, there is more to your trash than meets the eye. Teams chose a piece of trash, and identifed a problem with the way we may make, transport, store, or turn the trash into something new; and then worked on finding a solution that would add value to society by improving something that already exists, using something that exists in a new way, or inventing something totally new.

6 pack plastic rings

TRASH TREK℠ challenged teams to choose a piece of trash, identify a problem with the way we may make, transport, store, or turn the trash into something new; and then work on finding a solution that would add value to society.

“By challenging teams to discover new ways to make less trash and improve the way we handle our current trash, we were also asking students to take responsibility for their future and use innovation as well as technology to improve our current systems,” said Jordan Vener, who serves as senior program administrator for Interactive Technologies in the Center for Initiatives in Pre-College Education (CIPCE), which works with area teachers and students to promote the use of robotics in the classroom.

“The Trash Trek Challenge really tapped into a familiar topic that students, mentor coaches, and community members may otherwise take for granted,” said Vener. “The tournament provided students with an opportunity to understand common themes that connect science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), while addressing current solutions that may or may not be working. Most important, I know a handful of teams that took advantage of the opportunity to reach out to community sanitation and recycling experts, and we encourage this kind of collaboration and discussion because we want our students to meet members of the community and learn how STEM careers improve and preserve our way of life.”

Participating middle schools and programs included: Algonquin Middle School, Broadalbin-Perth, Broadalbin-Burnt Hills, North Albany Academy, Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk, Robert C. Parker School, Saratoga County 4-H, Shenendehowa Middle School, Stephen and Harriet Myers Middle School, William S. Hackett Middle, and Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake, along with a home school team from Greenfield Center. The tournament was supported by more than 50 volunteers, including Rensselaer students, faculty, and staff, along with area students from high school robotics teams.

“After eight intense weeks, the competition season culminated in high-energy, sports-like tournaments around the globe,” said Paul Schoch, associate professor of electrical, computer, and systems engineering and director of CIPCE. “It’s amazing to watch the teams of children guided by their volunteer coaches as they demonstrate their problem-solving skills, creative thinking, teamwork, competitive play, sportsmanship, and sense of community. We’re proud to host this competition because events like this not only help students to bring technology to life through their hands-on participation, but it can also inspire them to consider future careers as scientists and engineers.”

The winners for the December 2015 competition included:

EV3 Fusion
Qualifier Champion (and a guaranteed invitation to the regional championship)

Rainbow Afro Robo Builders 2.0
Team Spirit

Mindstorm Maniacs
1st place for Robot Performance

Mindstorm Maniacs
1st place for Robot Design

The Piece Makers
1st place for Core Values

Shen Trash Busters
1st place Project

Rainbow Afro Robo Builders 2.0.
2nd place overall (and a possible invitation to the regional championship)
The FLL Championship tournament for the region will take place on Feb. 27,  on the campus of Dutchess Community College.

FLL is a partnership between the LEGO Group and FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), which was founded in 1989 by inventor Dean Kamen to motivate young people to pursue careers in science, technology, and engineering. FLL is the middle school component of the FIRST Robotics Competition, an international contest that teams professionals and young people to solve an engineering design problem in a competitive way.

More information.