Students find treasure in trash-themed robotics contest

By: Eric Czarnik | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published December 2, 2015

 A Lego robotics team from Switzer Elementary School cheers for teammates at the table running the robot.

A Lego robotics team from Switzer Elementary School cheers for teammates at the table running the robot.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes


Utica Community Schools students used and reused their problem-solving skills when they operated robots and demonstrated their expertise in solving trash-based problems at a recent regional FIRST Lego League tournament in Sterling Heights.

More than 40 teams competed in the annual UCS ThunderQuest tournament Nov. 21 at Henry Ford II High School in Sterling Heights.

Jake Palmer, a principal at Switzer Elementary School who is involved with ThunderQuest, said the tournament was held despite a snowstorm outside.

“They battled the elements, and yes, they made it,” he said.

Palmer said ThunderQuest consisted of multiple parts. One was a robotics contest in which teams had to make their customized robots complete missions on a playing field based on the ecological theme of “Trash Trek.”

He said teams separately had to research a trash-related problem and come up with a solution. Students’ teamwork skills were tested, and they had to talk to a panel of judges, he said.

“There’s more than one way to complete all the challenges on the board, so they had to communicate their reasoning,” Palmer said.

Of the teams that competed, a UCS group came out on top, with the Lego Mages team from Beck Centennial Elementary School taking first place overall, Palmer said. The eight top-ranking teams are expected to compete in a state tournament in December, school officials said.

Debbie Hannan, parent coach of the Master Bearded Brains team, said her group of students took second place overall while earning a first-place award for robot mechanical design. She said her team’s Lego-derived robot was composed of two wheels, computerized parts, sensors and more.

“The team selects which missions they want to go for,” she explained. “One mission they had was a sorter (mission). The actual parts they sorted were different colored bars, which represented different types of trash.”

Hannan explained that ThunderQuest teaches communication, technical, business and life skills to students. For the Master Bearded Brains’ research project, they focused on trying to reduce the use of Styrofoam in carryout containers, she said.

“They proposed reusable polypropylene containers that can be used hundreds of times,” she explained. “You can call them an eco-takeout container.”

The “FIRST” in FIRST Lego League refers to a nonprofit group called For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, which tries to get kids excited about those subjects. According to FIRST, the FIRST Lego League is designed for students ages 9 to 14.

Learn more about Utica Community Schools by visiting or by calling (586) 797-1000. Learn more about the FIRST Lego League by visiting