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LEGOS & Robots not Just Toys at IKM-Manning

LEGOs and robots may just sound like toys that area children may have received for Christmas, but at IKM-Manning, they are anything but “kid stuff” and they are an important use of funds which have been raised through the IKM-Manning Gala during the past five years.

            The skills which are learned through the First LEGO League program and the activities carried out in First Tech Challenge are ones the students involved can build on and carry with them far into the future – a fact which has been realized by not only the students, their families and their teachers, but business men and women in the community and others looking to build a quality workforce for the future.

            Bill Howell, general manager of POET Biorefining of Coon Rapids, a four-time Gala supporter, and his wife Katherine have seen the importance of STEM.

Katherine and Bill have been working to further opportunities for student engagement, affordable educational options and career alignment opportunities in the area, state, and nation. They continue to work to strengthen business and education relationships, with the hope of creating a career environment that allows students to live, work, and raise a family within their current communities.

Katherine was appointed to the STEM Advisory Council in 2018, with Bill being appointed to the Governor’s Clearinghouse Work-Base Advisory Board and Region 8 – Workforce Development Board.

Their involvement in programs such as LEGO League, First Tech Challenge, and other STEM activities has gone ‘full circle,” as they have attended STEM festivals and have assisted as judges for competitions but have carried their support into the workplace, as the Coon Rapids plant was asked by POET to design and write a Bio-Technology Apprenticeship Program and have it approved and implemented through the U.S. Department of Labor.

The new program now has Department of Labor approval, with a targeted start date of March 2019.  It will directly align with the objectives of Future Ready Iowa, an initiative signed into law by Governor Kim Reynolds in April 2018.

Future Ready Iowa was created to bridge the skills gap in the Iowa workforce, with a goal of 70% of Iowa workers having education or training beyond high school by 2025. Currently, 58% of Iowa’s work force is students graduating high school who do not have any advanced training after graduation.

The apprenticeship program proposed by the Coon Rapids plant and located at the former Syngenta lab facility in Coon Rapids would be the first one anywhere in the United State aimed at biotechnology, an important piece of the puzzle for people like Howells who are looking for qualified employees to keep the plant operating efficiently.

And, with the importance of the apprenticeship program for students completing high school, Howell stresses that developing that work force begins with programs such as First LEGO League and First Tech Challenge.

Jenny Linde, who received a Gala grant to fund registration fees and the field set-up kit for the First LEGO League program in 5th grade, explains, “Throughout the fall semester, students on the LEGO League team researched and completed a project centered around this year’s challenge: ‘Identify a human physical or social problem faced during long term space exploration within our Sun’s solar system and propose a solution.’”

Linde, who coaches the team along with Cody Pramley, added, “The Plutonauts (our team name) decided on the problem of generating oxygen in space. They researched and learned about plants in space, the hydrolysis of water, hydroponics, and aquaponics. They based their solution on how could they generate oxygen in space and also grow food using the Martian soil and an aquaponics system. The team’s other goal is to program a Mindstorm robot to complete missions on the playing field. The score is based on how many successful missions a team can complete in a 2 ½-minute time frame.”

Linde said she has seen the program benefit the students and the school. She states, “Students are able to work together as a team to complete the project and robot missions while demonstrating LEGO League’s core values. They problem solved, worked as engineers, practiced soft skills, and presented their information at the LEGO League regional qualifier event held in Glidden November 17. This year the team was able to advance to the Iowa FLL Championship competition, which will be held in January.”

Linde notes that this year’s team members include Oriah Meiners, Laura McCarville, Samantha Doyel, Olivia Greving, Ben Ramsey, Jack Sanford, Camden Morris, and Isaac Blankman. “I have enjoyed watching this group of kids over the past few years. They have grown tremendously in how they can successfully work through a problem and use all the skills each team member provides to help benefit the team.  All their hard work has paid off this year, as they have advanced to the Iowa FLL Championship!”

Linde is grateful for the support from the community which allows the FLL program to continue: “I truly appreciate all the resources that have been provided to us with the help of the Gala and our generous community member and business donations. It really does provide excellent student engagement opportunities that allow our students to excel.”

The students themselves agree. Some, like Karlee Arp and Ben Ramsey note how LEGO League helps prepare them for topics they learn about in science and other classes, while Oriah Meiners notes, “I love FLL because it’s a challenge!”

Some added that they enjoy the challenge FLL represents, while Jack Sanford stated that First LEGO League is about “gracious professionalism and being a team player!”




The First Tech Challenge program, which has been offered at IKM-Manning since 2014, involves nearly 40 students on four different FTC teams at the Middle School level. Jim Blankman, their instructor, who was named the area “Teacher of the Year” by Carroll Broadcasting for 2018, is quick to point out that the Gala donations by area residents make it all possible. “This program is expensive to operate with registration for the season, purchasing the field element, and preparing the robots for meets and securing funding if teams advance in end of year competitions.”

He continues, “It is an honor and privilege to be part of a community that puts the education of our children and the future doers of the community at the forefront. With this continued support, of the education process, through monetary donations above and beyond what the state funds it leaves our children with access to an education that is first class.  With that said, I feel it would be professional malpractice for me to not provide the best educational opportunity for students by providing experiences that develop skills necessary for the next phase in life.”

Unlike First LEGO League, First Tech Challenge involves robots, and students are taught about designing, problem solving, building and programming machines to perform different tasks.

Blankman explains the format of the competitions: “The tournament is set up in rounds throughout the day.  A list is created where each team is given an alliance team to communicate, collaborate, and problem solve with, in order to strategize for winning a match. The goal for each match is to collect as many ranking and qualifying points to win matches. In order to keep team points there is a red and/or blue team. During each match there are two time-limited, competitive matches where team points are calculated. The first part of the match the paired red/blue teams compete autonomously. The robot is preprogrammed to push a large ball off the center vortex as well as getting the robot parked on a vortex. 

“The second part of the match is where each paired team has one or two members drive their robot remotely and score points by hitting and protecting beacons.  In addition to this activity the teams work to cap a big ball off the floor using a wall and/or on a ramp before the time runs out. At the end of the match, points are calculated and the teams are released to go work on their robots and collaborate with others to improve their game.  The last round of the tournament is where the top teams get to choose alliance teams to compete in final matches. The points obtained at the end of the round determine who the tournament winners include and move on to the next level of competition.”

He describes it as “a game of luck sometimes,” as students have to precisely set up the robot to line it up with the intended mission. The robot has to maneuver the playing field flawlessly for the mission to be successful.

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Blankman notes that at the upper levels of competition, teams will also interview with judges about their engineering notebook and the process of building, programming, collaborating, financing and promoting the robots.  They discuss team dynamics and that “gracious professionalism,” because FTC is about working together with all teams to provide the best possible outcome.

“The kids may not notice all of the finer things of this competition, but FTC is so much more than the operation of a robot,” he explains. “The perseverance, determination, hard work, dedication, thought process and hours of work that go into a season are unbelievable and the whole time the kids just think they are goofing off by playing with a robot at school!”

He points out that FTC is demanding and is not for everyone. “Colleges, universities and businesses are extremely excited about the students that participate in FIRST programs,” he says. “They say students in these programs enter college or the workforce out of high school better prepared than traditional students because the students have skills that cannot be learned in the classroom.”

Dylan Spies, a senior involved in FTC, stated, “The hardest part of FTC is about trying to figure out the best design to work with to accomplish the goals as fast as possible.  That is by far the most difficult part."

Junior Grant Behrens mentioned the team work involved in FTC, and eighth grader

Austin Wiederin stresses, “The most important thing I learned is teamwork.  FTC is different than other sports I have participated in; with FTC, everyone has an idea that they think will work, but the team needs to determine which one solution is the best to accomplish the task." 

Blankman concludes, “The students, coaches, parents and everyone involved in the FTC programs would like to thank everyone who has contributed in any manner for their generous support in ‘the hardest fun you could ever have!’”