Students from La Crescent’s Cruxifixion Elementary School are using Legos, robots and teamwork to explore the most efficient ways to conserve water.

Sixth-graders Diana Van Atta and Lucas Forman, and fifth-graders Rose Wieser and John Vaglahn make up the First Lego League (FLL) team S.O.A.P., which stands for Students Organized Against Pollution. The team is one of the the three FLL teams sponsored by the school.

S.O.A.P. was one of 10 teams to advance from a Dec. 9 Regional Tournament in Rochester in which they competed against 30 other FLL teams. S.O.A.P. handily went home with the Core Values award as well, which goes to the team that showcased the best teamwork. The team will be traveling to Minneapolis on Jan. 13 for sectionals.

FLL teams compete at accomplishing missions on a large table with specific features and border walls. An illustrated neighborhood with roads and a nearby stream is displayed on the field mat which covers the surface of each board.

Twenty-five different Lego models are located on the table, depicting small-scale versions of various items that can be found in a community, such as houses, curbs, water wells, fountains and fire trucks. One corner of the table is reserved for the team’s robot, and color sensors on the field mat allow for it to travel along the board smoothly.

In FLL tournament play, teams attempt to correctly program their robot to trigger as many of the models as they can in under two minutes and 30 seconds. The 18 potential missions entail things like making a fountain rise, covering a manhole or replacing a pipe. Points are earned for the completion of each mission, and teams can be penalized for certain infractions during missions, such as touching the robot.

Teams tend to be separated into members who work with the robot (Vaglahn and Forman) and students (Van Atta and Wieser) that work mostly on the models, but both sides have to be on the same page in order to successfully complete missions.

Combined with the mechanical challenge, FLL teams are required to carry out projects that coincide with the year’s chosen theme, which this year is improving the ways people find, transport, use or dispose of water.

“Runoff rainwater can potentially cause erosion, flooding and pollution,” Forman said of the problem his team chose to identify.

S.O.A.P. decided to center their venture around the use of rain barrels and hydroponic gardens, after Wieser saw a news story on rain barrels attached to the gutters of buildings, and informed her team when they were still seeking a project idea. The team contemplated for a while over what they could use the rain barrel water for.

“Then we thought, in the winter, there really isn’t much fresh, locally grown produce grown here in Minnesota,” Van Atta said. “So we came up with the idea to use the water on a hydroponic garden.”

S.O.A.P. is currently managing two hydroponic gardens that are housed in the school’s upstairs library. Before winter arrived, rain barrel water was used to supplement the gardens, which are currently harvesting lettuce the team hopes to donate to the school’s cafeteria.

“See if you look in here, you can see the roots growing,” Van Atta said, pointing to the bottom of the garden. “You can also see the air stone, which oxygenates the water so the plants can live.”

Van Atta exhibited the light meter that helps determine the correct mixture of red and blue LED lights that simulate the garden’s sun, and the digital pH scale used to test the water supply.

“Neither of us have ever had anything to do with hydroponic gardens, or robots,” said Dean Chady, who along with his wife, Jennifer Mueller, volunteer to coach the S.O.A.P. team. “It’s amazing to me, and makes me jealous there wasn’t this kind of program when we were growing up.”

“It’s just great seeing how well they’re learning to work together,” Mueller said. “To overcome either adversity, or just learning how to make decisions together.”

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Houston County News reporter

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