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Students (Bradent Wagner, Alan Molina, and Raymond Straub, III) from Stanton prepare to begin a round at GEAR 2014

What do you get when you mix legos, robots and kids?

KXWT’s Lana Straub reports the answer is equal parts fun and education.

I’m standing in a gym in the Rec Center at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. You might think from that buzzer sound that I’m at a basketball game or some other sporting event, but I’m not. I’m at competition called GEAR 2014 – or Get Excited About Robotics.

130 teams made up of elementary and junior high kids come from the panhandle down to the border and everywhere in between are gathered here to see which team can clear the most debris using ROBOTS in under 2 minutes. They are hunkered over laptops and armed with robotic lego pieces, ready to stand toe to toe in competition.


(Dr. Karp poses with astronaut Alan Molina from Stanton Jr. High)

The GEAR program was developed by Robert Acosta of Gear Robotics in 2002 as a means to promote STEM education while showing the kids that science and math are fun.

STEM is a new buzzword around Texas Elementary and Secondary Schools that stands for educational programs that focus on Science, Technology Engineering and Math. The 2014 competition is sponsored by Haliburton Industries and the Edward E. Whitacre College of Engineering on the campus of Texas Tech University.

Dr. Tonja Karp with Texas Tech College of Engineering is the instructor who brought the gear program to West Texas and hopes that ittwi be a tool to energize kids at smaller school districts to consider a career in engineering.

“We just want them to practice their problem solving skills, teamwork skills, engineering design skills, meet a deadline, follow the goals, score high. And doing Lego robotics is a lot of fun and excitement that the kids have with it.” Says Karp.

Karp hopes that students draw the connection between engineering and playing with lego robots and that the fun they had while learning will draw them back to Texas Tech as young engineering students.

To help with this connection, Karp encourages her young engineering students to mentor these kids and help them find innovative ways to solve the different challenges that the competition creates when it comes to organization, timing, and programming the robot to do what the children want it to do.

Clay Smart is one Karp’s engineering students who spends several hours a week helping the kids find new ways to design and program the robots to complete the competition tasks more efficiently.

“I don’t do it for them, but I try to lead them in the right direction.” Says Smart.  ”They do figure it out themselves, and that’s part of being an engineer, figuring out problems, solving problems so I think they’re on the right path.”

Elementary and Junior High teachers from as far away as the border city of Presidio have brought their here to nurture the student potential.

Earnie Monte is a science teacher from Presidio Independent School District. When I asked him why he would get up before dawn to bring his kids 400 miles north to compete with Lego robotics on Texas Tech campus, he says it’s because his students have a lot of potential and he sees it every day in the classroom. But Monte says without creative activities like the robotics competition to stimulate their mental growth, that potential might go to waste.

“So we decided that we should participate because we need to expose the student in as much STEM activities as they can because they have so much to offer.” says Monte.

Teachers like Carrie Hoffman of Garden City feel that working with their students to learn how to use robots through the use of Lego toys helps students blend science, technology, engineering, and math concepts with fun.

“Robotics includes so many areas of education that are overlooked or pushed aside, like engineering, working in groups, working on problem solving, not giving up, all these things that kids really need to learn.” says Hoffman.  ”And it puts it in an application that they understand and they love – you don’t have to fight them – they just totally take off on their own.”

Here’s how the competition works – teams compete in 3 rounds, their scores are tallied and the top ten move to the finals held later in the day. The team with the most points are given awards at the end of the day. An all girl team from J.T. Huchinson Middle School in Lubbock took home first place. Other awards were given as well.

There was an award for most elegant robot – won by Garden City Middle School. Several teams competed for the young engineer’s award completing a several page essay and extensive onsite judge’s interview. A team from J.T. Hutchinson Middle School in Lubbock also took that award. Students were even encouraged to “dress the part” of young engineers and wear costumes.

(Students at GEAR 2014)

The Stanton Junior High School team donned NASA embroidered white tyvek suits and took home the award for best costume for their astronaut suits. Karp closed out the award ceremony by giving participant awards to all the students who attended.

While the teachers and adults in the room realize the educational value in STEM activities and this competition in particular, the kids themselves mostly just seem to be having a good time. And perhaps that’s enough to get them excited about robotics and engineering.