By Aly De Angelus 

Krosswalk Kangaroos couldn’t stop bouncing the moment they heard that their teamwork and ingenuity landed them in the top three out of 51 teams at the FIRST Lego League (FLL) state invitational. 

Skagway took home the third-place champion’s award and sixth place recognition for their robot at the event in Anchorage on Jan. 18. First and second place went to eighth grade teams, as opposed to Skagway’s team of seven sixth graders.  

“The team was feeling really excited, it was their first actual, live competition,” coach Mary Thole said. “They had big shoes to fill,” referring to Skagway’s Prickles first-place victory at state last year, “so their eyes were on the prize.” 

Through security clearance at the airport, the kids, coaches and parents took turns carrying the robot by hand. The Krosswalk Kangaroos landed in Anchorage on Jan. 17 and met most of the other teams for a social the night before the competition. With a little coaxing from his friends, Ezikeil (Zeke) Coughran led his teammates around the room to learn about the other schools’ projects. Thole said her kids noticed one novice team was struggling with a turn and helped fix their robot’s programming. 

“We all advance more if we support one another,” Thole said, who mentioned “coopertition” as a trademark value for FLL. Cooperition is cooperating with competitors, a common belief in the field of engineering.  

From 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. of the competition, the attitude was “hands-on, mind on.” Kids spent the entire day running their robots on a practice table, presenting for judges or performing team-building tasks, often blindfolded. All the while, the  Dimond High School gym was pumping up adrenaline with music and live announcers. Krosswalk Kangaroos brought matching kangaroo onesies to wear over their clothing and a stuffed animal as their team mascot. Out of respect for the late Mayor Monica Carlson, who was passionate about pedestrian safety, the team named the mascot Carlson. They also named the joey inside her pouch Cremata after Mayor Andrew Cremata, who helped the kids formulate a plan to increase crosswalk safety in Skagway this past year.  

“(Cremata) brought up that crosswalks have been on the agenda for the Public Safety Committee for over a year and then it hit us, that’s how (Carlson) passed away,” Thole said, referring to the December 2018 accident in Washington, D.C. “That was important to her, that’s something that needs to be addressed in our community and it was kind of a solemn moment.” 

This research project was presented to judges as part of the three-pronged competition. The theme for the 2020 competition was solving a work, national or local community issue. Other project ideas for the Krosswalk Kangaroos included wheelchair accessibility for the playground and Seven Pastures.  

“It was like coaching a group of best friends,” Thole said. The team voted on every decision to avoid judging other’s ideas.  

Because the team was all sixth graders, Thole and robotics coach Greg Clem faced many challenges in the beginning of the season. Thole believes the usual mentorship from older kids on the team was missing.  

To compensate, the team attended two Skype competitions and a scrimmage in Whitehorse to prepare. Thole said the team would set up equipment in Skagway school library, taping down their laptop and using books to prop up their video cam. The kids would pace down the halls in-between video pauses to blow off steam.  

“It’s an academic sport, so we often practice(d) at least three days a week from August to December,” she said, and sometimes every day of the week as the competition approached.  

Alaska’s FLL only had one ticket to nationals for the winner of the Anchorage and Fairbanks competition. Though Skagway will not be advancing this season, Thole is happy to be back coaching the robotics team with Clem after a 10-year break.  

“I so believe in it. It’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and robotics, it’s everything we believe in the future,” Thole said. “I wish we could do it with all of our classes.”