Tzivi Heber, Hadas Orlev and their friends aren’t just playing with Lego building blocks after school. They’re doing it in the name of science.

As participants in the international FIRST LEGO League competition, the pre-teen and teenage girls – who attend the Nes Tsiyona Chabad public day school – are building robots and learning about food safety and food preservation techniques. With guidance from their teacher, Chabad-Lubavitch emissary Rivka Schneerson, they’re also examining whether Judaism’s kosher dietary laws, which mandate rigorous checking of leafy vegetables to prevent ingestion of non-kosher bugs, help keep those vegetables fresher longer.

“The most fun part is building with the Legos,” reports Heber, 13. “They don’t tell you what to do in the competition. There are no building instructions.”

A joint project between the FIRST organization founded by inventor Dean Kamen and the Lego Group, the FLL competition has teams around the world annually investigate a specific theme through three components. In this year’s challenge, teams must build and program an autonomous robot to complete a series of 15 food-related tasks within two and a half minutes. They must also research a specific food-related problem and offer recommendations, and they must also prove that they worked well together as a group.

Orlev says her favorite part is programming the robot.

“You’re the one who tells them what to do,” she remarks, “and then to see it doing what you want is amazing!”

The various robotic-related tasks include such things as placing groceries on a kitchen table without them falling down, and scooping up models of bacteria and viruses.

According to the Manchester, N.H.-based non-profit FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), groups are not expected to complete all the missions perfectly, or in a specific order. Points are awarded both for design and performance.

“It takes a lot of thought,” says Schneerson. “No-one can succeed in doing all the missions perfectly in such a short amount of time.”

For the research portion of the project, the girls decided to explore the nexus between technology and religion. As part of their exploration of kosher supervision techniques, they’ve toured vegetable packing facilities and have been learning about how companies prevent infestations among their crops.

Teams must build and program an autonomous robot to complete a series of 15 food-related tasks within two and a half minutes.
Teams must build and program an autonomous robot to complete a series of 15 food-related tasks within two and a half minutes.

Schneerson, who is an English teacher at the school, says that the girls have already learned so much – both technically and in the form of cooperation, respect and collaboration – from the process. That’ll help them demonstrate the FIRST competition’s core values of gracious professionalism and “coopertition,” essentially unqualified kindness and respect in the face of fierce competition, continues the teacher.

For the school’s principal, Chabad of Nes Tsiyona director Rabbi Sagee Har-Shefer, just the fact that they are participating is great.

“This is a very big accomplishment for the school,” he says. “I really hope they win, but they’ve already won by living their religious principles.”

A regional match takes place in a couple of weeks, while a national competition is set for March 6. The international showdown takes place in S. Louis, Mo., in April.

Victory or not, Orlev says she’s been inspired by the project.

Just shy of her 13th birthday, she’s now considering a career in electrical engineering.

Says the student: “I just really enjoy the creative process.”