Whether it's a months-long stay on the International Space Station or a future years-long mission to Mars or beyond, humans eventually may need to figure out the practicality of living for extended periods away from Earth.

If earthlings ever do make it to Mars, a sneak peek into the potential solutions to those practical problems is being offered by students participating in the 2018 FIRST Robotics Lego League program.

Grandview Heights High School's FIRST Robotics team hosted a regional tournament Nov. 17 at Edison Intermediate/Larson Middle School. Six teams from Edison/Larson competed against six other teams from Dublin, Chillicothe and northeast Columbus.

This year's Lego League theme is "Into Orbit."

"The competition is built around the idea of space travel, particularly long-duration missions," Terry Reese said.

Reese, who is head of digital initiatives and infrastructure support at Ohio State University Libraries, coordinates the Lego League program at Edison/Larson.

"The students are exploring the question that if people are going to be spending a year or more in space, what issues does that present and how can we address them?" Reese said.

Lego League teams are composed of six to 10 members in grades 4-8.

For this year's competition, each team must select an issue relating to long-duration space travel, research it and come up with a practical solution.

At the Nov. 17 tournament, each team presented the results of its research projects to a team of judges.

Teams also design and build a robot that they operate to complete up to 15 tasks on a game table.

The tasks include the robot crossing directly over models representing craters on a planet; moving one or more satellites into outer orbit; lifting a bar to a certain height; and rotating an observatory to a precise direction. Robots have 2 1/2 minutes to complete as many tasks as possible.

"There's no way you can complete all the tasks in such a short amount of time," Reese said, "so it becomes a question of knowing your robot's strengths and choosing which tasks to try to complete."

In some cases, a team may decide on the fly that its robot is not going to be able to complete a task it has started and will lose points by abandoning that mission and moving on to another chore.

"It's worth it to lose some points in one aspect of the board so you can gain points with other tasks," Reese said. "The game table is really tense."

During a tournament, teams are evaluated on their project, robot design and the performance of their robot on the table.

They also are judged on how well they exhibit the core values of the FIRST program, said Sue Godez, who coaches the Grandview High School robotics team.

"It's a philosophy of gracious professionalism and competition," she said. "It's working together and having fun as a team. It's not saying, 'We can beat the other teams,' but 'How can we help and support them?' "

Students can carry those values into the classroom and throughout their lives, Godez said.

The FIRST program offers students the chance to apply the STEM lessons they learn in the classroom to solve real-world problems, Reese said.

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Members of Grandview's 404 Name Not Found team chose to research a good food to feed astronauts on long journeys.

"We did a lot of research into different kinds of fruits and vegetables," eighth-grader Griffin Rosinski said. "We found out that kale is a real mega-plant. It's bursting with a lot of vitamins and minerals that can help keep people healthy."

Kale also is easy to grow and would be a practical addition to a "space garden" on a rocket ship, eighth-grader Nathan Reese said.

Sixth-graders Greta Kamhout and Leva Fischer are participating in Lego League for the first time this year.

"It just seemed like it would be a fun thing to do," Greta said. "I'm interested in science and math so this sounded perfect for me."

"You get to spend time with your friends, and spending time working on things related to science with them," Leva said.

Her favorite part of Lego League is designing and building the robot, she said.

"It's very precise," Leva said. "There's a lot of things the robot has to do, so you have to make sure every part has a purpose. It's a lot of trial and error."

Participating in the Into Orbit program has led Greta to think more about a potential career in science.

"I'd like to do something involving science, but I don't know what yet," she said.

While Edison/Larson has six teams, same as last year, the number of participants has grown from 39 to 50, Terry Reese said.

"We have a lot of eighth-graders who have a lot of experience in the Lego League program, but what's pushed our numbers up is the number of fourth- and fifth-graders who have gotten involved this year," he said.

STEM "is kind of a cool thing" for a lot of students, Reese said.

The high school robotics team also visits Stevenson Elementary School, helping to create curiosity and interest in the Lego League program in the younger students, he said.

The 404 Name Not Found team won the Nov. 17 Grandview regional tournament by earning strong scores in all aspects of the competition: robot design, project, core values and game table. The team will move on to compete Jan. 12 in the Super Regional tournament in Dublin.

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