For six students at Mossville Grade School, Legos are not just for play. The little plastic building blocks are a venture into engineering, problem solving, research, teamwork and possibly saving the world’s banana crop.

For six students at Mossville Grade School, Legos are not just for play. The little plastic building blocks are a venture into engineering, problem solving, research, teamwork and possibly saving the world’s banana crop.

Mossville School eighth grade students, Bradley Storm, Zach Benefield, Jared Brabant, and sixth grade students, Jonah Brabant, Jack Didesch and Euan Price make up the school’s First Lego League Team.

Parents Steve Storm and Mark Brabant coach the team, with the help of other team parents, including Neil Price, Steve Rouland and Dennis Didesch. Didesch's mother Michelle Rouland made costumes and choreographed the skit.

After finishing in the top 25 percent of the Dec. 10 FLL Regional Competition at Bradley University, the Mossville FLL Team advanced to state competition Jan. 21. Notably, the team earned top honors at regional competition for robot design. It is the first time the Mossville School Team has made it to state competition according to Coach Steve Storm.

The Mossville team placed 26th out of the 64 teams in state competition. The team placed in the top 10 in the robot design category and top 10 in the project category.

A top finish in the project category isn’t surprising since the team’s project is so innovative and potentially beneficial that the team has filed for a provisional patent of their project. Price’s mother Rosa McDonald, put together the provisional patent for the team.

The project completed by each team must tie to the theme of this year’s FLL competition, Food Factor. In addition to designing, building and programming a robot, the team had to identify a food related problem, propose a solution, and produce a skit and storyboard illustrating their findings.

In their research the team found that the world’s most popular fruit is in trouble. The banana, more popular than apples and oranges combined, may be wiped out in 10 to 20 years. The team found that a deadly form of Panama Disease, TR4, threatens the banana. The fusarium disease attacks the Cavendish banana – the most popular edible variety of banana.

The team learned that research conducted by Dr. Hans VanEtten at the University of Arizona found that pea plants given an electric shock would produce 13 times more phytoalexins which will fight fusarium disease.

The Mossville FLL Team asked if an electrical shock would produce the phytoalexins to fight TR4? The Mossville FLL Team proposed that electrical shocks are means of saving the banana.

VanEtten, who is an East Peoria native, had a conference call with the Mossville FLL Team and was intrigued by their idea to shock banana trees.

The team also enlisted the assistance of scientists at the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research Laboratory, formerly known as Northern Research Laboratory in Peoria, and the tropical fruit plant pathologist at the USDA Tropical Plant Genetic Resources and Disease Research lab in Hawaii for their feedback.

Commenting on the Mossville Team’s findings, tropical plant pathologist from the Hawaii USDA lab Dr. Lisa Keith noted, “One approach to control plant diseases is to improve a plants’ defense against a particular pathogen.

The idea is to turn on genes encoding for proteins that have antimicrobial activities.

Plants have their own mechanism of defense against plant pathogens that include a vast array of proteins and other organic molecules produced prior to infection or during pathogen attack. Plant defense mechanisms include the increased production of secondary metabolites. Since the electric current of the shock can elicit these responses, it seems that your innovative approach would work.”

The Mossville team’s project is up for FLL top honors in two categories, the Global Innovation Award and the Food Protection Award. An online vote will help determine which First Lego League project will win. The team asks that the public review their project and vote for them via the online website.

The public has the opportunity to vote once a day until the voting deadline of 5 p.m. March 1. The Top 10 projects from the online voting will be coupled with 10 projects selected for their merit by judges will make up the 20 semi-finalists. The winner, along with two runners up, will be determined from the following criteria: solution clearly results from the current FLL Challenge, feasibility, originality/creativity, efficiency: simplicity/cost-effectiveness, public benefit, and commercial viability. The National Center for Food Protection and Defense will select one team for the Food Protection Award based on the criteria of: solution clearly results from current FLL Challenge, originality/creativity, feasibility and applicability to food protection and defense.

The Mossville team’s finding of the loss of bananas by the fungus has precedence. Before 1960, it was the Gros Michel or Big Mike variety of banana consumed by most of the world. Panama Disease invaded banana plantations until there were no more Big Mike bananas.

Shortly after the state competition the team filed for a provisional patent on their idea to shock banana trees to save the fruit against the deadly fungus.

The Mossville FLL Team had to take the findings of their research and solution and build a storyboard illustrating the facts as well as write and perform a skit for the FLL competition. With the help of Bradley Storm’s ukulele playing, the team includes the popular 1920s song, “Yes We Have No Bananas” in their skit. The shortage of Big Mike bananas is said to be inspiration for the song.

Each member of the team has a vital role in its success. Working as a team and participating in friendly, information sharing competition are as important as any other part of the First Lego League activities.

Literature about the competition notes, “The FLL Core Values are the cornerstones of the FLL Program. They are among the fundamental elements that distinguish FLL from other programs of its kind. By embracing the Core Values, participants learn that friendly competition and mutual gain are not separate goals, and that helping one another is the foundation of teamwork.”

FLL competitions take place around the world, with 308 teams in Illinois; and 19,800 teams in the 50 participating countries.

The Mossville School FLL team has worked since September to bring together all of the elements necessary to participate in the worldwide FLL competitions.

The theme of this year’s FLL competition challenge is Food Factor, Keeping Food Safe. Teams are judged in four areas tied to the theme.

The Mossville Team’s robot was built to complete several tasks laid out on a 4-by-8 foot tabletop. The tabletop is divided into fields illustrating different sources of food, such as a lake with fish, a field of corn and refrigerated ground transport, to name a few. All teams compete on the same tabletop layout. The robot must complete as many of the tasks as possible in 2.5 minutes. Each activity carries a different point value.

The robot is built from a kit which includes three motors. The robot design is that of the team. The Mossville FLL Team won the award for best robot design at the FLL Regional Competition and was in the Top 10 at state competition.

The robot carries make up about 30 percent of the overall score. The balance of the score comes from the team’s project, presentation and commitment to core values established for First Lego League.

Between the FLL Regional Competition and State Competition, the Mossville Team worked on their projects to refine each element. The team meets in the basement of the Mossville Methodist Church.

Over the winter break from school the team reworked their robot to make it move quicker. With each change to the robot came change to the computer software which programs movement. The team uses Blue Tooth technology for communication between the software and robot.

The team also used light sensors to direct the robot via the black lines of the competition board. “Our smooth and accurate line following turned a lot of heads at the Regional competition,” said team coach Steve Storm.

To program the robot, the team uses a laptop computer donated by the Mossville FLL team’s first coach Gary Spadin. Started in 2007, Spadin’s group originally met at Mossville School, moving to the Mossville Methodist Church in 2010. It was the first team who named the Mossville group, Ghosts in the Machine, combining an Illinois Valley Central ghost along with the team sponsor, Caterpillar.

Spadin said, “During the first four years we steadily improved our presentation skills for the competition… one distinction during these four years is picking up the Best Robot Design award during the 2009 Peoria Regional competition.”

With a goal of maintaining a top design award, Mossville Team members fine-tuned the robot before state competition – each move tried over and over again to get it just right.

It is this perseverance which caught team member Jonah Brabant’s attention. If he were to explain what it takes to be a team member he notes that, “You have to be good at engineering and problem solving and it takes knowing that if something doesn’t work you don’t just give up — you have to work hard and not give up.”

Jack Didesch likes the fact that FLL makes him think outside the box. While he wants to someday be a pilot, he has a lot of ideas for inventions he would like to try out.

Zach Benefield likes the elements of teamwork. This is his second year as a FLL team member and he also likes to visit with people he has met at previous competitions.

Teamwork and working on a project with friends has Jared Brabant in his second year on the FLL team, too. He added that it is a great way to know if you want to go into an engineering field.

Actually programming a robot is what Bradley Storm likes best in this his second year on the FLL Team. He sees a career in mechanical engineering in his future.

Euan Price likes working with Legos, a challenge, competition and working with neighbors and friends from school, so the FLL Team was a great fit for him. He summed up his experience on the FLL Team as, “Really fun.”

Even though the Mossville FLL team did not advance to nationals, they are excited about the outcome of the online competition, as well as the direction their provisional patent takes to save the world’s most popular fruit.