It's the Robo Cubs versus the Lego Lizards, and it's a fight to the finish.

A group of Hamilton Middle School and Grantsdale Elementary students will be locked in a futuristic battle of robots and computer programming this weekend, as they head to the First Lego League state robotics competition at Montana State University in Bozeman.

The students, who are entered in the competition as part of the Keystone to Discovery Enrichment Program, an after-school component of the Hamilton School District, have spent the last 10 weeks building a robot out of Lego pieces and creating a computer program that will move the robot through a given layout to complete different tasks.

"It's pretty cool," said Keystone to Discovery director Ria Overholt. "They are given a kit that contains a motor, and a table with a pretty intricate layout. In addition, they are given a theme. This year it is ‘Food Factor,' and the contest organizers left it a bit up to our own interpretation as to what we wanted our research project to be. A lot of our elements had to do with germs and food safety."

Overholt brought in a couple of sanitation specialists from the county, as well as a microbiologist from Rocky Mountain Labs to help the kids out with issues relating to food-borne illnesses.

"They did a question-and-answer session, and the kids were so into it," Overholt said. "They were very curious about which restaurants in the county the sanitation specialists gave failing grades to, of course. They wouldn't say though."

The kids then had to narrow down problems they see in the world of food.

"One kid came up with the idea of cold lunches at school," Overholt said. "How long does that food stay at a safe temperature? They ran some experiments, got some data, and came up with their solution. The middle-school boys came up with some great ideas. They started thinking about food carts and mobile food servers, and the solution was to create a germ-bot. Of course when you are a middle school boy the project is a lot more fun when robots are smashing things."

John Martin, a special education teacher at Grantsdale Elementary, said the kids are excited to see the fruits of their labor.

"The Grantsdale team will actually compete against the Hamilton Middle School team," he said. "There will be referees in black and white shirts blowing whistles and everything. It's pretty exciting. And it's actually a very good team-building exercise."

The First Lego League tournaments are designed to inspire young people to be science and technology leaders by engaging them in exciting mentor-based programs that build engineering skills that inspire innovation and that foster well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication and leadership.

The Hamilton kids are leaving for Bozeman on Friday to compete against 36 teams from around the state. Overholt said she isn't quite sure what to expect, but she knows it's going to be a learning experience for the teachers and students alike.

"Most of us are newbies," she said. "We are just figuring it out as we go along."

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Reporter David Erickson can be reached at 363-3300 or


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