Upstairs in the library of the Calgary Science School, a group of students huddle around a mat watching intensely as a robot tries to deliver dinner to a waiting kitchen table.
Aside from its computer chip and mechanical parts is something special — it's a robot made of Lego.
Since the start of the school year, the Calgary Science School's First Lego League team has been meeting every Monday in preparation for the league's Alberta championship Jan. 21 in Edmonton.
"It's sports for the mind," said Walter Kowalchyk, president of the Alberta Youth Robotics Society.
"The kids can get together and solve challenging problems using science and math for their discovery."
The championship focuses on using robots built with Lego to complete real-world challenges. This year's theme is "Food Factor" so teams are working to program their robots to fend off bacteria and deliver food to different areas on the thematic mat.
Darren Anderson, a parent at the Calgary Science School, started the team after taking part in the competition with his son Evan last year. This year his daughter Brielle also joined the team.
"I think it's really good creatively," said Anderson. "It gets them off the screens with the video games and TV."
Anderson is the team's coach and oversees the programming of the robotics. He said he is now more of a guide because many of the team's 10 kids have grown more confident in their abilities and are able to problem-solve on their own.
Also part of the competition is a presentation where participants must develop a solution to a problem in today's world. The team has to come up with the concept and not actually develop the technology. The Calgary Science School Lego team has decided to create an iPhone app which contains nano robots to fight illness-causing bacteria on food.
Liam Krusalik, 9, has been playing with Lego since he was three years old. Although he hasn't started programming robots yet, Liam, who wants to be an architect when he grows up, said he has built a Lego tower in his bedroom with an estimated 5,000 pieces.
"I might just keep developing different ideas and maybe even discover some good tricks that you could manipulate into buildings," he said.
Part of why Lego is so successful in helping kids to learn is because it is so flexible, said Cassandra White, a registered child psychologist. She added that she uses Lego daily in her practice.
"When you think about kid's cognition, Lego is a fabulous toy because it's visual and spatial," she said.
"One of the reasons I love it is because it's open-ended and so there isn't one way of doing it; they can build more than one way."
White also said Lego's ability to be both simple and complex can help children learn to visualize, plan and then create objects. She said because Lego is slower paced and does not have the continuous visual or auditory stimulation like a video game, it also helps children to learn how to focus and be patient.
Kowalchyk echoed White's opinion that Lego is a great tool to help children improve both their academic and social skills.
"We're building future leaders with the program," he said.
"We've got a lot of children here in Alberta and this is a great way to express it."
- By LAURA LUSHINGTON