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Knoxville students' LEGO robot competes on international stage

You've never seen LEGO bricks used like this before.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — If you think you're pretty good with LEGO bricks, take a look at what one group of Knoxville middle schoolers can do. Their work is about to take go on an international stage.

The kids of team NX36T are a group of homeschooled students who, after school, are part of the FIRST LEGO League.

It's an international nonprofit that "guides youth through STEM learning and exploration at an early age," with the goal of helping kids "understand the basics of STEM and apply their skills in an exciting competition while building habits of learning, confidence, and teamwork skills along the way," according to the group's website.

The part that gets the kids interested in joining is building robots out of Legos.

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"I love the robots and all the software designing because it's super fun," said Ean Borja, an 8th grader.

He and the other four kids on team NX36T all came for the robots and stayed for the lessons in STEM.

"We are a FIRST LEGO League Robotics team that has three main things to our season," said Ean. "We have our table, we have our projects, which we are designated a problem every year and then we have to find a solution to it. Then we have our core values like teamwork and competition and things like that."

The five homeschooled middle schoolers worked to build a LEGO robot from scratch and taught it to do certain tasks, called missions.

"We want to score basically the most points as possible on the table," said Ella Clare McFarland, a 5th grader.

She said it takes a lot of work, but also requires a lot of fun.

"It takes a while to like, get used to like the motors and stuff and a lot of learning," she said.

Credit: WBIR
Ella Clare McFarland prepares her team's LEGO robot to complete its mission.

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It turns out they're pretty good at it.

"Right now we're fairly decent but good enough to beat most people," said Ean.

Good enough to be named regional champions and secure a spot at this year's international competition in Houston.

"It's a testament to the kids because they start to really see what they can do themselves that maybe they wouldn't have recognized before," said Aaron McFarland, the team's coach and Ella Clare's dad.

He's learning just as much as the students themselves.

"I thought, as an engineer, I'd come in and understand," said McFarland. "I had no idea how to make LEGOs move around the table."

It's not as easy as it looks and on top of robotics, they also had to solve real-world problems. This year, the theme is transportation.

"Our problem this year is finding a more efficient way to transport cargo," said Ean. "We designed a rail system to move cargo from a truck to another truck without having to go through a loading dock."

In competition, the team has to display its core values along the way. Those values are innovation, teamwork, discovery, inclusion, impact and fun.

The kids will keep those values in mind when programming their robot to score higher than their competition in April at the world championship competition.

"It's pretty amazing what middle schoolers will accomplish," said McFarland.

The team heads to Houston on April 20, with hopes of bringing home a trophy made of LEGOs.

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