A horde of middle-schoolers will converge on Ames this coming weekend, making kids’ toys perform programmed tasks in a statewide tournament for young creators at Iowa State University. Camille Sloan Schroeder is program coordinator for the FIRST LEGO league. FIRST is an acronym for a nonprofit organization from New Hampshire that cooks up activities like this one to get young kids interested in sciince, technology and engineering.

Of two divisions, the fifty or so “Junior FIRST LEGO League” kids are ages 6 to nine and they bring wind-up motors and a LEGO creation they’ve put together for the tournament. The 9-to-14-year-olds are designing and building a robot that’ll run by itself on the playing field. They’re also preparing for interviews, and a research presentation. The kids have worked in teams for months, and this tournament is their day to show off.

Schroeder says many haven’t realized yet they’re likely headed for a career in engineering. She says when they’re grown up doing jobs in the real world, a lot of these tasks will be part of the job they’d do as an engineer — designing, building and testing. She says the counselors point out the projects they’ve done for fun have used skills they’ll value in an engineering career.

She says when they point out how computer engineers do software and programming like the kids have done, a light goes on…and it inspires them. “Plus,” Schroeder says, “it doesn’t hurt to have a technologically-literate workforce.” The kids will be shown around the I-S-U college of engineering and a couple of the newest, nicest buildings on campus.

They do virtual-reality applications and materials-science demonstrations and let them program robots in labs and get a full campus experience. She says some come from families where nobody’s goner to college before, so the campus visit is their first chance to see an institution of higher education and get a feel that it’s possible to achieve. The LEGO tournament’s from 9 to 5 on Saturday January 21 at Iowa State University’s College of Engineering.