Around 15 years ago, Dr. Keith Nisbett, got a call from Arkansas to be a judge at a First Lego League (FLL) competition. 3000 mentored middle school and high school students later, he still holds high praise for getting kids interested in science and technology through robotics.

Around 15 years ago, Dr. Keith Nisbett, got a call from Arkansas to be a judge at a First Lego League (FLL) competition. An Associate Professor and Associate Chair of Mechanical Engineering at Missouri S&T, Dr. Nisbett had never heard of such a thing. It was a new concept for getting kids involved in science and technology. It was a weekend where teams of  middle-school students (ages 10-15) presented months of research and work to solve a real-world problem and would show off a robot the team had built and programmed.

“You had these teams of kids who had built robots out of Legos and then earned points by  having the robots pick-up and drop-off objects on a table-top field,” Nisbett recalled.

He was hooked. He returned to Rolla and put together a team of his own—Rolla Regional Robotic, affectionately known as “R-Cubed.”  A  month ago, Nisbett was named Central Missouri FLL Coach of the Year at a competition in Camdenton. As well, his team of six middle-school students won first place in the mechanical-design category.

“My award was based on a nomination from our team,” he told The Rolla Daily News. “The kids were excited as they could finally let the cat out of the bag as they had been working hard on putting the nomination letter together secretly behind my back. While it (the winning nomination) came from this year’s team, I look at it as a representation of all the hard work our teams have put in over the years.”

Dr. Nisbett, who has been teaching at the Missouri S&T for 28 years, estimates that he has mentored and instructed  close to 3000 middle school and high school students in the area of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) through the Rolla robotics program. This has included summer camps and numerous robotics teams over the years.
He noted that an FLL robotic competition is much bigger than playing with Legos.

“Robotics activities provide an ideal vehicle to interest young students in various STEM  related activities,” he said. “There’s problem solving, design and a lot of teamwork.”
In Missouri, there are four main FLL competitions throughout the year. These include events in St. Louis, Kansas City, Camdenton and Columbia.

Dr. Nisbett related  the Rolla team has traditionally made up of area homeschool students,  several of which have been his own children.

The team starts in late August as they receive the FLL competition theme. This year’s theme was centered around hydrodynamics. They also receive the specifications on the construction of their robot.

From then on, the team meets once a week putting together their presentation and robotic machine. The group has a number of parent volunteers who help throughout the year.
Nisbett said that one of the advantages of his teams is their connection to Missouri S&T.
“As the teams grew, I obtained departmental sponsorship to provide equipment and workspace.  The students meet on campus, learning robotics application, design, construction, and programming. They are meanwhile exposed to our college engineering student projects that are sharing the workspace.”

He added that as the middle-school students turn into high school students, Rolla Regional Robotics offers a league for them as well.

“Ive even had a number of (robotic)  students who have even gone on to attend Missouri S&T and then into  a career in science and technology because of their participation on our teams,” Dr. Nisbett said. “These students say that their interest in science and technology was sparked with robotics. So the program here has definitely been a  win-win situation.”