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Lego leagues in the Chattanooga area serve to catapult eager participants into the upper echelons of the academic and business elitesand help reconcile information learned from books with real-world experience, participants say.

Playing with Legos could improve a child's chances of receiving a scholarship to one of the country's most prestigious technical institutions, say local officials affiliated with the FIRST Lego League, a international body that encourages students to build robots out of the popular Lego toys.

With national sponsors including 3M, Rockwell Automation and Statoil, it's clear to Eric Stansberry, a teacher at Ooltewah Middle School, that companies are interested in students with "21st-century skills."

"It teaches them problem solving, it teaches them how to create and it teaches them how to work as a team," Stansberry said.

The roughly two dozen student robotics teams in the Chattanooga area are split into several different leagues based on skill, age and preferred financial commitment, but all are descended from Manchester, N.H.-based First (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), an organization that oversees robotics competitions across the globe.

Ed Chapin, head of the group Chattanooga Robotics, said the program is built on the premise that time spent building robots out of plastic bricks can lead to a lucrative career building robots out of silicon and steel.

"What you're doing is taking kids and teaching them how to play with a robot," Chapin said, "and by doing this very subtly, you're teaching them how to be a member of a team other than football, and how to solve a problem."

hands-on savvy sought

Teaching children to think critically at an early age is an invaluable career move, said Jerry Tyman, general manager of Chattanooga based Automation IG, a company specializing in robotic integration.

Given a straight-A student with little hands-on experience, and an average student with a great deal of real world robotic knowledge, Tyman said he'd hire the average student every time. As an example, he cited an instance when one of his employees brought his children, who participate in a Lego robot team, to work one day.

"The kids were able to come in and actually program some of our [computer-controlled cutting] machines to cut metal parts out," Tyman said. "You've got 10-, 12- year olds who can come in, and make their own toys. That's pretty impressive."

And those are exactly the kind of employees he wants, employees with nimble, logical minds who understand cause and effect as well as the limits of human-machine interaction.

"A lot of people we talk to, they think you can program a robot to get you some coffee and take care of you," Tyman said, "But the robot has to know where the coffee is, what coffee is -- you have to feed it information."

investment by parents

To help bring robots to life for the children, about 20 student teams from the Chattanooga area held a competition in November at the Volkswagen Training Center, surrounded by life-size industrial robots.

"There are 500 robots in the Volkswagen plant, and there may be 1,000 people on the floor," Chapin said. "But when you talk about the folks who have gone to the tech schools, they're not working with the robots, they're the ones building the robots."

That's a worthy goal for many parents, who pony up thousands of dollars per year for their children to research, build robots, and compete with students from other schools.

The cost to compete in statewide tournaments can run from $800 to $7,500, depending on the age of the student and the level of competition, Chapin said.

TVA interest

The engineer-heavy Tennessee Valley Authority has supported Chattanooga's robotics program for five years, according to Charles Spencer, who oversees TVA's dealings with the program.

"We're doing it to hopefully have folks that will eventually graduate from high school and college, or technical schools, and come to work for us," Spencer said

Jessica Stone, who works in communications for TVA, added that in addition to encouraging high achievers, the program also lassos in students who would otherwise ignore science and math in favor of seemingly easier pursuits.

"Programs like this can inspire kids who otherwise may not be exposed to this kind of thing to seek opportunities in fields like that, engineering, robotics, fields like that that are very relevant today," Stone said.

Cookeville tourneys

While some robotic tournaments mandate the use of Lego robots, others require students to build full-on functional robots out of primarily metal materials, a much more difficult and expensive task.

"A lot of them come up through the system, and move from one challenge to another," Chapin said.

At a December tournament in Cookeville, Tenn., about 120 Chattanooga students in four school buses drove to the event, followed by 100 parents in 20 cars, where Chattanooga robotics teams made up about 25 percent of the total Tennessee contingent, he said.

Though Chattanooga teams took home only four trophies, they captured first, second and fifth place in the research category, a victory that demonstrates the successful integration of real-world practice and theory, he added.

"A typical player will be offered between $2,000 and $15,000 worth of scholarships, simply for having participated on the team," Chapin said, but noted that the learning experience isn't just about climbing the career ladder.

"It's a very effective way of enticing them to develop math skills, leadership skills, teamwork skills, mechanical and computer engineering skills, and do it while hopefully having a great deal of fun and enjoyment and learning a great deal," Chapin said.

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at or 423-757-6315.