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LEGO robotics tournament takes place Sunday

Six teams from Palo Alto will compete with students from other cities

If you've never met the SwineBots, Whoseywhatsits or Squealers, Palo Alto's LEGO robotics tournament this Sunday will afford the opportunity for an introduction.

The annual event, which could lead to the Peninsula Championship for a lucky team, will bring together 12 teams from Palo Alto, San Mateo, Millbrae, Hillsborough and Cupertino. Six of the teams are from Palo Alto.

The First LEGO League tournament is a hands-on, interactive robotics program for elementary and middle school students that teaches problem-solving, teamwork and core values such as graciousness, professionalism and friendly competition while sparking the imagination and interest in technology and the sciences.

The qualifying competition will be held on Nov. 20 at Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. It is open to the public. Last Saturday a tournament was held at Castilleja High School.

Each September a different challenge focuses on a topic related to the sciences. The robotics part of the competition includes designing and programming LEGO robots with the LEGO Mindstorm platform to complete tasks, Tournament Director Joe Drake said.

This year's event is called "Food Factor," and is about keeping food safe from contamination and spoilage. Participants examine their kitchens and the food items in them and trace the path the food took to get there.

"In the course of tracing it, the team identifies the risks and creative solutions for addressing that risk," he said.

The robots must carry items such as pizza boxes and ice cream and complete tasks on a playing field to get to the base. The winners don't win simply because of their robot's success. They are rated on the other values, including teamwork activity, technical presentation and research or problem-solving, Drake said.

The event is a partnership between LEGO Group and FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), an organization founded by inventor Dean Kamen to inspire students in engineering and technology.

Drake assisted his son's team in 2009 and 2010 and is his head coach this year. His son's team in previous years advanced to the Northern California Championship.

The most elegantly designed robots he recalls from past tournaments were from the Los Altos Geek Squad (in 2009) and from the Pacifica all-girls team Antipodes, he said.

"It was an amazing robot. It just blew everybody away. It was thinking outside the box," Drake said of the Los Altos Geek Squad robot.

Antipodes garnered third place in the 2009 Northern California championship and competed in the international competition in Istanbul, Turkey, according to their website.

"They had the most beautiful robot. It was stunning in what it could do," he said.

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