One of FIRST Lego League’s core values is understanding that what you discover is more important than winning. But it still feels good to win, as the Missoula International School robotics team found out this weekend.

MT Recycles, a team of nine students in grades 4-7 at MIS – a private Spanish immersion school for preschoolers through eighth-graders – brought home the championship trophy from the FLL state tournament Saturday at Montana State University. They beat 62 teams for the honor.

The theme this year was trash. Every team had to develop an innovative research proposal based on trash and improving how it’s handled. MT Recycles landed on e-waste: cellphones, computers, TVs, etc.

“We all thought of ideas and wrote them on the board,” said 12-year-old Jack Kinderwater. “We all took turns crossing them out. We had narrowed it down to cardboard and metal. We chose metal, but that was too large of a topic. So we chose e-waste instead.

“We looked on some websites to see metals, then we had a list of them. Then we thought, well, is there a ... thing that had more than one metal in it? Well, then we figured out e-waste ’cause electronics have tons of metals in them.”

From September to January, the team spent two hours after school every Tuesday and Thursday sweating over their research and fine-tuning their robot. Research and robotics are independent of each other in the competition.

“It’s not just about being on a robotics team,” MT Recycles head coach Dari Quirk said. “You’re on a research team, you’re doing the robots and you’re working as a team, much like what I’ve been telling the kids all season: ‘It’s like a sports team, a soccer team. Some people will be more interested in the research and that’s OK. Some people will be more interested in the robots and that’s OK. But everyone needs to work together, cooperate, work as a team and all come together for the final event in Bozeman.’ ”


Twenty states have e-waste landfill bans – Montana isn’t one of them.

These students want that to change.

Their research was twofold: Not only did they learn about e-waste, how it’s handled across the nation and how waste itself is processed in landfills, but state Rep. Willis Curdy gave them a lesson in legislation.

The end goal, said 10-year-old McKenna Summers, is for Montana to ban e-waste from landfills.

“We haven’t really gotten the legislation yet. We’re probably going to work on it in these next few months until the world festival, but we know what we want to do,” Summers said. “We want to ban e-waste and then we want to promote recycling it.”

Specifically, Quirk said, the students focused on smaller devices, which most bans don’t cover.

“It's (e-waste is) one of the fastest-growing hazardous waste streams in the world,” Quirk said.

On Monday morning, as Summers and Kinderwater ran some test missions with the team’s robot, "Bob," Quirk suggested a short break in after-school practice.

No way, Summers and Kinderwater said. They want to get right back into planning. World championships are only a couple of months away, after all. From April 27 to 30, the team will be in St. Louis competing against 108 teams.

This is only the team’s second year. Six students stayed on from last year and three more – all girls – joined this year. One of those was Summers, who said she was looking for something to do after school.

The judges read team name after team name Saturday – those that had received awards for innovation, teamwork, coaching and more. MT Recycles wasn't on the list.

Then they named the champion.

"They called our number and our name and ... it was just pure joy," Quirk said.

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