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Ready, set, robot

Whitehorse Lego League team heading to championships
The Lego robot named Lentil Bean photographed in its Whitehorse home, which will be used to compete in Victoria. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

From the outside, you’d never know there’s a robotics lab in the basement of the house in Granger. You’d never know that a robot with its own brain lives there, and that a team of five is programming it for a series of Rube Goldberg-style “missions.”

Inside though, there are brightly-coloured schematics in one corner. Components are stored in boxes all over the room. There’s also a schedule of stated project objectives hanging on the wall and, beside them, a list of rules.

Tell people when you leave the room.

Use your time wisely.

No farting. That rule has four exclamation points.

This is the workspace for the only FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Lego League in the North. Its five team members, who range in age from nine to 11, are preparing for the provincial championships, taking place in Victoria on Feb. 2.

The Whitehorse team, made up of sisters Evey and Sunny Moore, and siblings Audrey, Cullen and Dash Provan, is relatively new to the robotics game.

They registered to be part of FIRST Lego League (an international organization) in September 2018, after Evey and Sunny attended a Lego League camp in Whitehorse over the summer. At it, Evey programmed a robot to draw. She has a framed picture of the colourful spirograph images it produced.

The sisters immediately knew they wanted to continue with the league after camp ended, and recruited family friends, the Provans, to round out their crew.

“(At first it was) Tuesdays and Thursdays but then we realized that wasn’t enough time so now we also see them all day Sunday,” said Audrey, explaining the team’s work schedule.

That’s the kind of dedication it takes to fulfill the requirements of Lego League, in which 45,000 teams around the world work with a new theme each year (this year’s is “into orbit”) to satisfy requirements across three areas.

1) They have to complete a project that identifies and solves a personal or social problem that might be experienced by someone involved in long-term space travel. The Whitehorse team settled on loneliness. Initially, they thought a pet could solve the problem, until they started doing research by visiting the Mae Bachur animal shelter and interviewing dog trainers. The issues they uncovered are addressed in a song they wrote for the presentation they’ll give in Victoria - we know from all our research/service dogs can help with stress/seniors love robo pets/and real space dogs would make a mess.

Instead, they’re suggesting refurbishing a robotic cat, making it softer and warmer, and programming it to look at you when you speak to it.

2) They have to complete a series of robotics-based “missions.” They pay a one-time fee of roughly $400 for a box of Lego components and a brain to be programmed. After that, an annual fee of $275 USD gets them a massive mission board and series of missions. Every team gets the same gear, and is given the same tasks, but the way each team comes at building and programming their robots is always wildly different.

3) Core values are the games and activities that the team works though on Sundays. Sometimes core work involves tasks that mimic programming, such as partnering up and having one partner walk a blindfolded partner through the woods (Cullen walked off a small cliff doing this), or having one partner trying to explain to the other, blindfolded partner, how to feed them (“I accidentally made Audrey eat a marshmallow with her eyes,” said Sunny).

These activities are meant to build cooperation, gracious professionalism and teamwork.

Leanne Moore, who donated her craft room to the Lego League lab, said it’s interesting to watch the dynamics between siblings when they partner up during core values work.

“Sometimes I think it’s better because it’s like they already know how to mediate certain problems and then sometimes it’s worse because they’re like ‘you’re my brother and you’re irritating.’”

So sometimes she splits them up too. That’s really the extent of her role though. She said parents aren’t supposed to get involved. The goal of the league is for the kids to work together to figure things out on their own.

She said neither her family nor the Provans are very tech-savvy in terms of having video games and computers around. Lego League is a nice introduction to technology that isn’t mindless. They have to use a laptop (donated by Computers for Schools) to program the robot brain to control various components of the robot body. How fast will the wheels turn? When will they stop? At what point will it lower its arm?

“It’s like, if you want it to work, you’ve got to make it work,” Moore said.

When they come back from the championships in February, they’re going to try to generate interest in other Yukon communities in the hopes of inspiring more teams.

“Our goal is we would like to get 10 teams going here because if we have 10 teams we can hold our own competition and then the winner from that will go to provincials,” said Moore.

“We’re going (to the championships) to learn, and FIRST Lego League (as an organization) is really supporting us to reach out to the communities when we get back.”

First though, they’re going to take a break. Prepping for the championships has been a ton of work. Not enough to deter Sunny from wanting to work at NASA, but enough for Evey to re-think the job.

“After I realized how much work it was, I don’t want to be an astronaut anymore,” she said. “I mean, the only reason I wanted to go was because they have no gravity.”

Contact Amy Kenny at

Whitehorse’s FIRST Lego League team shows off their robot in Whitehorse on Jan. 24. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)