NORTH ADAMS -- Natal Paredes gasped in delight Monday afternoon as the Lego Mindstorms NXT robot he had just programmed inched closer to its goal.
"It's the closest I've come yet," Natal, 10, said as he reset the robot for another pass at pushing Lego squares toward a target.
His excitement drew several of his Sullivan Elementary School teammates, who offered suggestions on how to correct the robot's movement.
Nearby, coach Nathan Samson was listening intently as Will Schrade, 11, and Derick Jimenez, 10, discussed how one program they'd written could be modified to complete another task. Seconds later, the boys were huddled over a laptop making modifications to their program.
"This is the moment I really like, when the light bulb goes off," Samson said.
Samson and fellow coach Jared W. Sprague lead the 10-member robotics club, known as Sullivan SWAT (Students Winning At Technology), as part of the school's after-school program offerings. On March 23, the team will travel to Lenox Memorial Middle & High School to take part in the 14th annual Berkshire Robotics Challenge.
The competition, which drew a record-setting 32 school-based teams last year, is based on the annual First Lego League challenge, an innovative program designed to engage students in science and technology.
"Each year we purchase the First Lego League kit, which comes with the guidelines and challenge objectives," Samson said. "We're part of a hands-off league, so everything is built and programmed by the students."
This year's challenge, "Senior Solutions," has the students using the Lego Mindstorms NXT robot and NXT program software to solve a series of "missions" -- challenges senior citizens may face on a daily basis.
"We have to solve problems like how to make bowling easier or how to walk the dog," Lily Williams, 10, who's been on the team for three years, said. "We have to build everything with Legos and then program the robot to do the tasks."
Other tasks include identifying medication bottles by color or grasping items with a robotic hand.
During the robotics challenge, the team will earn points for how well each task is completed and for the number of tasks completed during a two-minute window. They also have the opportunity to win an award for a research project they've completed and will present to a panel of judges.
"We can only have two team members in the pit during the challenge, so this year we've decided that those spots will be based on how much they've learned over the course of the program," Samson said. "We're having them keep journals where the write about what they've learned and the problems they've solved."
He hopes the after-school program will inspire a few of the team members to pursue a job in the technology or engineering fields.
Samson might just get his wish, should team member Ben LaForest, 12, achieve his dream job.
"I want to be an aerospace engineer," Ben, who's participated in the program for four years, said. "I think this is a good program to teach technology to kids and I really like being part of it. I think it's helping me with my problem solving skills."
To reach Jennifer Huberdeau, email