Photo by Isak Tiner

Contestants in the Lego League challenge include (from top): Stanley Aleman, Samantha Diaz (inset, left), and Karieliz Sanchez, all of CS 61 in the Bronx, New York.

In Samantha Diaz’s mind, it’s one day after an Arctic storm. Scientists are stranded on an ice sheet and hungry polar bears are closing in. All that can save them: a robot, designed by 11-year-old Samantha and classmates at CS 61 in the Bronx, New York.

Welcome to the Lego League challenge. Twenty thousand kids tried to solve this scenario using the Lego Mindstorms Robotic Invention System. The essence of Mindstorms is the RCX microcomputer brick, pioneered at the MIT Media Lab. Users program their robot’s behavior on a PC and then transmit that information to an RCX brick. The brick, the size of a deck of cards, has input ports that connect to sensors and output ports that, in turn, can be connected to anything from wheels to cables to pulleys.

At CS 61, after deciding with others how to save the scientists, Samantha and Karieliz Sanchez set to work digging through buckets of bricks and clipping pieces together. The friends, who normally chatter about boys and complain about homework, spent 90 minutes absorbed in their task.

“Usually the teacher tells you what to do,” Samantha explained. “But with this, we program what we want.”