Scotts Creek School 7th-grader William Selby prepares to compete in the FIRST Lego League regional robotics challenge held Dec. 7 at Cullowhee Valley School.

Hundreds of 4th- through 8th-grade students gathered at Cullowhee Valley School on Saturday, Dec. 7, to compete in the western region’s FIRST Lego League robotics challenge. Jackson County Public Schools hosted the event for the first time, and it featured 28 teams from as far away as Charlotte.

This year’s theme, “City Shapers,” challenged participants to solve a real world problem and build a sustainable future.

JCPS FIRST Robotics Coordinator Larissa Miller was named Regional Coach of the Year and the team from Scotts Creek School received the Core Values Inspiration Award. Smoky Mountain High School student Cody Miller received the Youth Mentor Award.

In the morning session, teams presented research and solutions as part of an innovation project. They were given a team task and scored on their adherence to the program’s core values, and they presented robot designs that were judged by mechanical engineers. The afternoon session featured the popular robot games where teams programmed autonomous robots that completed various tasks in 2 1/2 minute rounds.

Miller said the competitive element of the robotics program is important because students learn valuable skills like problem solving and teamwork at a very young age in a respectful and inclusive environment they call “gracious professionalism.”

“Everybody can go pro on this kind of team,” she said.

Chief Academic Officer Angie Dills emphasized that local teams must typically travel long distances to participate in multi-district events.

“It offered an opportunity for us to have a regional competition where everybody had access,” she said. “We want to remove barriers and enable our kids to have the same access that students would have in a more urban setting.”

JCPS has been involved with FIRST Robotics for seven years.

“What started as one team experimenting with the FIRST Lego League competition evolved into multiple teams across the school district,” Dills said. “Some schools have more than one team.”

Dills believes the program develops lifelong skills.

“The students are in charge of their own learning and self-discovery which is very important to the developmental growth of children,” she said.

Maintaining a successful robotics program is labor-intensive and requires significant financial support. Each team of no more than 10 students is coached by a classroom teacher with assistance from one or more volunteers.

The minimum cost to maintain a single FIRST Lego League robotics team is $1,000 per year. “New kits and supplies have to be bought every year,” Dills said. “It’s a huge collaborative effort.”

“We have wonderful volunteers, and our business sponsors are really instrumental to the success of our program,” Miller said.

In addition to grant funding, teams receive financial support from the school district and from several individual and business donors. Community members, organizations or businesses who would like to volunteer time or sponsor a team should contact any JCPS school and inquire about their robotics program.

For more information, call Dills at 586-2311 or email