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Maureen McMullen, Published March 12 2014

VIDEO: Toying with innovation: Local Lego team learns problem-solving skills

FARGO – Most people consider Legos to be toys.

For Thermionix 4.0, a Fargo-based Lego robotics team, the plastic bricks offer a platform for creativity and developing presentation, inventing, problem-solving and even patent-seeking skills.

Thermionix 4.0 – a name that comes from charged particles emitted from a heat source, and the four years they’re been a team – is one of 33 area teams participating in First Lego League.

FLL is a worldwide program that challenges kids to assess, research, and build solutions for realistic problems – all with Legos.

“There’s a lot to do, so it keeps you busy for a couple months,” said Carter Eisinger, 14, a five-year Thermionix veteran. “It’s a lot of fun working with the robot, and building it and programming it and stuff.”

Thermionix members have been invited to represent North Dakota at the National Open Championship at Legoland California in May after their first-place victory at the state championship at the University of North Dakota in February.

Each year, competitors are presented with a theme, and asked to identify problems, research the problems and come up with solutions for both table-top Lego courses and real-life situations.

This year’s theme is “Nature’s Fury.”

“You pick a problem and you find a solution for it and make it viable enough and see how well you do,” Eisinger said. “This year we chose tornadoes, and the problem we found with tornadoes was people trapped under debris.”

The team’s answer to the problem was Rubble Ranger, an unmanned aerial vehicle that uses complex sensors to scan an area for people who might be trapped under wreckage from disasters such as tornados or earthquakes.

The team has presented its idea to local professionals such as Fargo Emergency Services Coordinator Leon Schlafmann, and has applied for a provisional patent.

These are the exact skills Thermionix Coach Theresa Settles hoped her son, Robert, would gain from FLL.

“When he first started five years ago, he had problems speaking to people clearly,” Settles said. “Being able to go into a roomful of professionals and being able to say what you have to say clearly and answer questions coherently and learning the programming, being part of the group and learning how to apply for a provisional patent – all of those are skills that he can actually take into his life when he graduates school and goes to look for a job.”

Thermionix members will also be required to navigate a Lego robot they built and programmed through an obstacle course related to natural disasters.

Having already competed at a national level in 2011, when they took home second place for robot performance, team members say they’re not worried about how they’ll perform in May.

“One technique is to not be nervous,” said Vincent Casey, 13.

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For more information about the team or to check out its fundraisers, visit www.facebook.com/Thermionix4.0