When 40 Houston-area grade-schoolers found themselves without a place to present their FIRST® LEGO® League (FLL) Jr. projects, Caterpillar Oil & Gas stepped in to fill the void. On January 13, the Caterpillar Houston office played host to its first ever FLL Jr. Invitational — giving kids an opportunity to show off their creativity and exposing them to Cat® technology at the same time.

Last summer, the Caterpillar Oil & Gas sustainability team asked employees in the Houston office if their children would be interested in participating in FLL Jr., a noncompetitive, hands-on STEM program for kids ages 6 to 10. (Caterpillar has been involved in FLL since 2005, but this is the first year the Houston office has sponsored teams.) Two FLL Jr. teams formed as a result and began working on projects with help from employees who volunteered to serve as coaches. The goal: solve a real-world challenge by designing and constructing a model using LEGO elements and motorized parts, then present the solution on a poster.

“As part of our research, we discovered that the Houston area had lost its FLL Jr. mentors this year, and the closest place our kids would have to showcase their projects was Dallas or Austin,” says Michelle Merkelis of Caterpillar Oil & Gas. “An eight-hour roundtrip drive for a two-hour presentation is a lot to ask of families. So we thought we could put something together here.”

Bringing kids together to make STEM fun

That “something” turned into an FLL Jr. Invitational for seven Houston-area teams, including two made up of Caterpillar and Solar Turbines employees’ children: Team Lego Brick and Team Splash! The half-day event kicked off with a speaker from Caterpillar and several videos highlighting the robotics found inside Cat equipment. Then, the teams made their presentations on this year’s FLL Jr. project: Aqua Adventure, which involved exploring water’s journey and building a LEGO model with a water pump to improve it.

“It’s all about getting kids involved in STEM at an early age — working as a team, collaborating, bringing ideas to the table and innovating,” says Bala Thirunavukarasu, a Caterpillar Oil & Gas employee who joined coworker Thomas Carly as the coaches of Team Splash! “Sports always get the spotlight, but science can also be fun, and this is one of the ways we’re demonstrating that. The teams have been meeting after school for more than 12 weeks to get ready for this event.”

Volunteer reviewers made their way from team to team during the presentations, asking questions about the various Aqua Adventure models and encouraging the kids to explore different possibilities. The event concluded with a ribbon presentation and a “high-five” line for all participants.

Introducing a new generation to Caterpillar

The FLL Jr. Invitational also gave Caterpillar Oil & Gas and Solar Turbines the chance to show the students — along with their families, other teams’ coaches and volunteer reviewers — some of the innovation behind Caterpillar manufacturing processes and equipment.

“Especially in Houston, because of all the construction here, these kids and their parents know us for the dozers we make,” says Merkelis, who coached Team Lego Brick along with fellow Caterpillar Oil & Gas employee Isaac Fox. “They don’t realize that we touch water, solar panels, oil and gas — so much more than just big yellow machines.”

For Thirunavukarasu, it was a chance to introduce FLL Jr. participants to potential careers as well.

“At some point they could be working for Caterpillar,” he says. “We use robotics in all sorts of ways, from our manufacturing processes to our autonomous trucks. The future is all about autonomy, and these kids are the future for our country.”

With a successful inaugural event behind them, Caterpillar Oil & Gas sustainability team members are planning to build on their momentum — joining other Caterpillar organizations across the country who regularly support FLL teams, events and programs.

“We hope it becomes a bigger, longer-term initiative in Houston,” Merkelis says. “We’ve gotten requests from parents who say their kids will definitely be interested next year, and we have an employee joining us from out of state who’s been involved with FLL teams of older students. We want to continue to grow our teams and support our community.”




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