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Lawrence team to vie for FIRST LEGO League world title

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Two Quail Run Elementary fifth graders soon will take a project inspired by monarch conservation to an international STEAM competition.

Esther Kong and Sarah Song will challenge teams made up of fourth through eighth graders from all over the world in April at the FIRST LEGO League Challenge in Houston, Texas.

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The contest flexes participants’ skills in science, technology, engineering, art and math, or STEAM for short.

Surrounded by presentation boards, trophies and their robots, Esther and Sarah talked about their “rookie year” and the two competitions from which they’ve already advanced.

Tricia Masenthin/Lawrence Times Sarah Song, left, and Esther Kong display their milkweed presentation board at Monarch Watch on Feb. 8, 2024.

Their team — The Three Moons — originally consisted of three Quail Run students. After qualifying for regionals, the trio moved on to Kansas City, where they placed first in January against more than 200 teams. Moving forward, Esther and Sarah will represent The Three Moons in Texas at the final round of the MASTERPIECE challenge.

Esther and Sarah agreed they’re both self-motivated. While some of the work has been completed during enrichment classes at school, most of the work occurs outside school.

The tweens said they’re very much looking forward to the next level of competition. They discussed how they made it all the way to the finals of a world STEAM contest centered on problem solving, critical thinking, design and coding.

“I really want to do it because we can meet a lot of people from around the world, as well as the United States,” Esther said.

Tricia Masenthin/Lawrence Times Esther Kong holds the presentation board while Sarah Song points out changes the team has made to its robots for the FIRST LEGO League contest.

KC Kong, Esther’s father, explained how the hands-on competition consists of three main components: robotics, a project and core values. Those values are discovery, innovation, impact, inclusion, teamwork and fun, according to the FIRST LEGO League website.

“Each team has to be good at all the things at the same time,” Kong said.

The Three Moons team has partnered with Monarch Watch — the education, research and conservation program based at the University of Kansas. Their project highlights the monarch butterfly population and ways to support it.

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Tricia Masenthin/Lawrence Times In the background, a monarch butterfly made from more than 1,800 origami butterflies is displayed. Community members folded and signed each of the tiny designs during public presentations by The Three Moons.

Nine months ago, the team began giving presentations at Lawrence Public Library, Monarch Watch events, and at area schools as far away as Topeka and Lee’s Summit.

They made and distributed seed paper to encourage the planting of late-blooming flowers, spread facts about the importance of milkweed, and designed a website and board game for kids about monarch conservation.

Sarah, who just celebrated her 11th birthday, said she thought the more kid-friendly zone on the Monarch Watch website designed by her team would help spread the word about the monarch butterfly’s declining population and help people understand how they can help.

“Our website can reach out far and wide to a lot of people,” Sarah said.

The tweens wear matching monarch T-shirts and wings, and each dons a skirt they designed. Nearby, a 4-inch-thick notebook contains the project’s history. It shows how the project has evolved and documents how the team has received help along the way from educators, Monarch Watch staff, parents and older siblings.

Tricia Masenthin/Lawrence Times Esther Kong and Sarah Song talk about their robotics mission strategy.

The roots of the project began with the girls’ volunteerism at Monarch Watch. Esther’s mother, Mijeong Baek, said that 14 years ago, the family attended an open house. They have volunteered with the organization since. Esther learned to crawl and walk there.

“All those memories we have here,” Baek said. “All my three kids grew up here at Monarch Watch, coming here almost every Wednesday. So we learned a lot.”

Ann Ryan, research assistant at Monarch Watch, called the STEAM team’s contributions “amazing” and has enjoyed watching the students’ confidence blossom throughout the process.

“It’s pretty heartwarming to see the impact and how these young ladies have taken it and run with it, to spread the word about what we’re doing,” Ryan said.

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Supporters of The Three Moons have created a GoFundMe account to accept donations to pay for the team’s trip to the 2024 FIRST Championship in Houston. To access their fundraising page, click here.

Baek encouraged those who are interested in learning more about Monarch Watch in person to attend its annual Mother’s Day weekend event. Monarch Watch’s open house and spring plant sale fundraiser will take place from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, May 11 at Foley Hall, 2021 Constant Ave., on KU’s West Campus.

Tricia Masenthin/Lawrence Times Sarah Song and Esther Kong hold the FIRST LEGO League Challenge prizes: Kansas City Qualifier Champion Award, Robot Performance and Regional Champion first place.
Tricia Masenthin/Lawrence Times The Three Moons teammates thumb through their project notebook on Feb. 8, 2024.
Tricia Masenthin/Lawrence Times
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Tricia Masenthin (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at tmasenthin (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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