In a room filled with young brains that could spout
facts and figures on the geothermal activity on Mars, a bad case of the giggles broke out.
First it was 15-year-old Benjamin Streeter of Bedford
and then 10-year-old Melissa Gray of Milford. Soon enough
the entire FIRST LEGO League team made up of middle
school-aged homeschoolers from Bedford, Wilton, Merrimack,
Milford and Hollis was cracking up.
Infectious giggles are a hazard of the job, according
to Ken Streeter, coach of the Mindstorms Mayhem team.
Contagious as well are the smarts that each team member
exhibits during the presentation that could win them
international acclaim during the FIRST LEGO League
International Invitational in Atlanta next month.
FIRST LEGO is the middle school answer to the
high-school level FIRST Robotics Competition Championship,
where life-sized robots compete in an arena to complete
tasks such as putting balls in a basket and negotiating
uneven terrain. It's the baby of Dean Kamen, New
Hampshire's well-known inventor of the Segway Human
The LEGO version lets the seventh- and eighth- graders
put their problem-solving and scientific skills to
FIRST LEGO robots are designed
by the individual teams and consist of a battery / motor
and LEGO pieces, nothing else. Several robots are used to
perform different tasks on the Martian landscape playing
The Mindstorms Mayhem group -- sponsored by BAE Systems
-- competed against 47 other teams around the state in
December and won the coveted "Director's Award" for best
overall presentation. Now they'll head south to do battle
against teams from 40 other states and six other
Here in the spacious and well-lit finished Milford
cellar of Mayhem coach Bill Gray, about a dozen
Mindstormers run around working on laptop computers,
adjusting LEGO contraptions and practicing lines from a
skit. In their red T-shirt uniforms, they look like a
small army of red ants swarming to get a job done.
It's a Monday morning. The team usually meets on
Friday mornings to do their work; the looser schedule of
homeschooling students allows for that.
LEGO parts -- thousands of them -- lay about. Laptop
computers are open and running. Students split their time
between computer work and tinkering with the robots.
The competition this year sends the students to Mars.
Not really, of course, but they'll visit problems and
situations encountered by NASA engineers and scientists
who worked on the Mars Rover missions.
The LEGO robots are made of the small, connectable
plastic parts and computer-driven electronic motors that
look like a battery the size of a wallet. Computers allow
the students to program the robot to move a certain
distance and perform tasks on a billiard-sized playing
What the robots do on the table is directly related to
a skit the students put on before the robot work starts.
The young ones perform their act, discussing geothermal
layers on Mars, subterranean drilling and ice cores.
All the while, Streeter follows along a script and
mouths the words like a film director. He asks
11-year-old Nathan Streeter of Bedford to speak up during
his presentation. David Schunemann, an 11-year-old from
Hollis, needs to slow down when he talks, he says.
Benjamin Krupkin, 15, of Milford
cuts a rap about the Martian landscape as Victoria
Umenhofer, 13, of Wilton, and Melissa Gray, 10, of Milford
The skit starts with Daniel Umenhofer, 10, of Wilton
working a television remote made of LEGO blocks. The
channels he clicks to include the other members of the
group performing commercials, speaking on news shows and
even one who raps.
All include information about the Martian landscape and
how to create energy using the robots.
Afterwards, Gray and Streeter, acting as show judges,
drill the students on the practicality of finding and
using energy on Mars. Most answers are correct and to the
Some information, the students report, came from actual
e-mails to NASA scientists.
Then it's off to the table which is covered by a paper
Martian landscape. Grid lines define distances. LEGO
structures like ice cores, habitation modules, and solar
panels sit on the field.
The robots start from a corner and wheel their way to
spear the ice cores, wipe dust off the solar panels and
connect habitation modules. It's hard to figure out
what's more intense, watching the robots work or the
students who need to pick up each one after a mission, lay
down another, program it, and let it go.
The robots are fit with devices -- all made of LEGOs --
to help them complete their tasks. An attachment wipes
LEGO blocks off the solar panel; another pokes through the
ice cores and then dumps them off.
The competition is judged in five areas: research and
presentation; robot performance; technical mechanics of
the robot's construction; teamwork; and what judges call
"FIRST values" or gracious professionalism.
And whether or not the students win the competition,
they're having a blast. Even when they're blowing lines
during the skit or when robots have a burp in their
programming, smiles abound.
Mindstorms Mayhem coach Ken Streeter of Bedford goes
over the day's tasks before a practice session in Milford. He and Milford coach
Bill Gray act as technical support and skit directors and keep the meetings rolling.
"These kids really learn how to figure out problems,"
Streeter said. "And they have to build these things,
change them when problems come about."
For homeschoolers, the opportunity to work alongside
other students is a huge plus, Gray said.
"They excite each other about this," Gray said. "It's
an opportunity for them to be involved in team-oriented
The only down side to the competition is the cost.
Gray and Streeter say they had to figure out how to come
up with the about $10,000 it will cost to get the
students, some parents and the coaches to Atlanta and
back. BAE Systems is putting up half.
The contest runs April 15-17.
The Mindstorms Mayhem team representing New Hampshire
is: Melissa Gray, 10, Milford; Nathan Gray, 14, Milford;
Brian Jennings, 14, Merrimack; Benjamin Krupkin, 15,
Milford; Jacob Krupkin, 12, Milford; David Schunemann, 11,
Hollis; Benjamin Streeter, 15, Bedford; Nathan Streeter,
11, Bedford; Daniel Umenhofer, 10, Wilton; Victoria
Umenhofer, 13, Wilton; mentor Christopher Jennings, 16,
Merrimack. The coaches are Bill Gray of Milford and Ken
Streeter of Bedford.