Building tomorrow's innovators: Nebraska 4-H Robotic Expansion and FLL Championship ignite STEM passion

Nasrin Nawa | 

April 11, 2024


The Nebraska Extension 4-H program hosted the FIRST LEGO League Challenge Championship at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln this year, in conjunction with the inaugural 4-H Robotic Expansion in a two-day event. This unique combination provided 576 youth from across the state with the opportunity to engage in hands-on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) activities and explore potential careers while competing in the First LEGO League.

Nebraska 4-H has brought the FIRST LEGO League (FLL) to Nebraska. This year marked the 15th FLL event in Nebraska, showcasing the ingenuity of youth as they delve into robotics and chart their paths toward future careers. FLL, which stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,” represents a significant intersection of science and creativity.  

The FLL event featured 76 elementary and middle school teams tasked with devising an innovative solution to a problem, with the theme changing annually. This year, the theme revolved around art, technology and hobbies. This immersive experience fostered research, problem-solving, coding, and engineering skills among the young participants, culminating in the opportunity to win a LEGO trophy.

The event began with in-person group judging sessions, where groups of two to 10 youths present their projects to a panel of judges and engage in conversations during 30-minute sessions. Following the judging, the focus shifts to the robot game, where each team has three opportunities to achieve the highest score possible within a two-and-a-half-minute window. 

The venue buzzes with energy, featuring live broadcasting and designated hosts at each table providing live event narration. Youth have the opportunity to view other groups' projects, and families are welcome to attend the competition to show their support on campus.

Meanwhile, the first inaugural 4-H Robotics Expansion provided additional enrichment through STEM and career exploration activities, including a showcase tour of UNL. Some had the chance to take tours of different UNL departments, such as engineering, where they learned more about various potential jobs by engaging in presentations and conversations. 

"We brought them to campus this time where there is interest and desire around STEM," said Brandy Schulze, Extension engagement coordinator. "We have great colleges and departments that offer majors in STEM, so we provided them with opportunities for behind-the-scenes tours and engagement with our department staff. Perhaps one day, these young people might decide to attend UNL." 

Brad Barker, Extension specialist, emphasized the event's role in inspiring youth to pursue careers in STEM fields, noting how many participants eventually return to UNL to further their studies in advanced engineering and sciences. 

"My oldest child is an engineer now, and it all started from FLL 14 years ago right here," said Tracie Tyler, an FLL volunteer and mother of four youth who participated in FLL. She believes this program offers youth an effective opportunity to explore, learn and practice their skills, providing them with a glimpse of future careers.

Timothy Egelhoff, a 4-H member with four years of FLL experience, praised the program for its ability to foster teamwork and expose participants to a diverse range of innovative projects. Similarly, newcomer Kaylee Wemhoff expressed appreciation for the program's hands-on learning opportunities, particularly in programming and coding. 

According to Schulze, the Robotic Expansion not only focused on college experiences but also aimed to guide youth towards pursuing careers after their education. To facilitate this transition, “we partnered with the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce to engage youth in hands-on activities. Through this collaboration, we provided insights into various careers by bringing industry partners to campus, giving youth a firsthand look at what it's like to work in those fields.”

Mike Boyle, president of Kawasaki, one of the industry partners, lauded the event as a valuable platform for youth to develop problem-solving skills and gain insights into potential career paths, underscoring the importance of cultivating a new generation of skilled problem-solver professionals in Nebraska. "This league steps into that direction, doing something fun with friends that might build into career in the future," he said. 

The competition culminated in three finalists and one first-place champion award, based on core values, innovation project, robot design and robot performance. However, Nebraska is just the beginning; the first and second-place championship teams will advance to two additional global competitions. The first-place team will travel to Houston, Texas, in April for the World Festival, where they will compete against 160 teams from around the world. The second-place team will attend the Florida Sunshine Invitational in June.”

"We wish them nothing but the best and hope they represent Nebraska to the fullest,” said Schulze. “They should know that we are immensely proud of them.”