Posted: March 24, 2016 at 1:07 pm

By Samantha Clarkson, Kalea Gunderson and Nate Temple

Driving down the winding route 219 in Monroe County, W.Va., you’re surrounded by cow pastures, duck-speckled ponds and hills rolling into rugged mountain ranges shielded in sugar maple. In an area as rural as this, with a population of 13,483 according to the 2013 census, it’s hard to imagine meeting anyone who isn’t an aspiring farmer.

Further down the road, in Union, W.Va., the county’s seat, there’s a group of nine middle-schoolers gathered in the back of an auto repair shop who are aspiring engineers, scientists, mathematicians, etc. They’re known as the Boa Constructors.

The Boa Constructors are a junior robotics team – but not just any robotics team, the winning robotics team. This group of budding innovators won the state-level robotics competition and is preparing to compete in the FIRST Lego League Robotics World Championship in St. Louis, MO in late April.

The FIRST (For Inspiration & Recognition of Science and Technology) Lego League is an association that hosts Lego robotic tournaments every year in order to pursue the goal of challenging kids to research, invent, troubleshoot and more in the process of creating their own robots made of Legos.

“The FIRST motto is that this is the only sport where every kid can go pro,” 4-H STEM Specialist Jen Robertson-Honecker said.

In order to win, the team designed, built and coded a 3-pound Lego robot from scratch, with no help from its adult supervisors. The robot, named Quazzy, has the ability to navigate the game table by dodging obstacles and lifting, pushing and plowing through objects as part of this year’s FLL challenge: Trash Trek.

The competition is broken up into different sections, all of which are judged on the team’s mastering of core values, project, research and robot design.

“Each time they come to the game table, these kids learn a new skill,” Honecker said. “From science, technology, engineering and math to leadership and cooperation, they’ve learned what it takes to be a well-rounded person. It’s a really neat atmosphere that you just don’t get in other sports.”

According to Honecker, who was involved in the initial push for robotics teams in West Virginia, these skills are important for all kids to gain.

Honecker and the W. Va. 4-H STEM program linked with the FLL 10 years ago when the national 4-H STEM program encouraged all states to pick up this revolutionary hobby. She was able to get a small grant and has steadily been increasing the number of teams in W.Va. since then.

When she first started, there were 10 teams in W.Va. Now, there are over 40.

“We still have counties in the state where there aren’t any robotics teams at all,” she said. “I’d like to see 4-H STEM bring this opportunity to each county.”

Click the map to view it interactively.

According to Honecker, kids are interested in the idea of robotics; the issue is getting supervision from leaders to start a team. However, with teams like the Boa Constructors achieving the state title and competing in the World Competition, she hopes to see more initiative from groups in other counties.

In order for the Boa Constructors to make it to the World Competition, they must raise $15,000. They’re over halfway to their goal because of fundraising and sponsors such as NASA, 4-H, STEM, Southwestern Energy, etc.

To contribute, visit the Boa Constructors online fund at www.gofundme.com/ghgvryec.