SOUTH SIOUX CITY -- Jackson Wagner, 14, is laser-focused on the science behind robotics while his best friend Ean Van Osdel, 14, serves as a one-man pit crew, ensuring a mechanical tank nicknamed "Aries" carries out a series of special missions.
Wait, aren't these two North Middle School eighth-graders simply having fun, playing with Legos?
Well, actually Jackson, Ean and their fellow Kobra Kai members are learning about problem-solving, teamwork and technology as a part of a First Lego League (FLL) team, which regularly meets inside the South Sioux City Middle School library.
Coached by Jackson's dad Sam Wagner as well as South Sioux City Middle School teacher Jerry Plathe, other members of Kobra Kai (named after the dojo made famous in "The Karate Kid" movies) are Grace Wagner, 10, Olivia Wagner, 11, and Aaron Plathe, 15.
An international robotics competition for elementary and middle school students, FLL involves designing and programming Lego Mindstorm robots to complete assigned tasks. This year, participants work out solutions related to space travel at regional contests where they share knowledge, compare ideas and show off their robots.
Kobra Kai is one of two Dakota County teams who are advancing after participating in the FLL pre-qualifying round held in Bellevue, Nebraska, on Feb. 2. Kobra Kai, along with Space Bones (made up of team members Ross Abts, Matt Bousquet, Connor Schamp, Samuel Shadbolt and Maximus Wiggs, as well as coaches Lisa Bousquet, Anita Eckert and Angela Abts) will be among the 12 teams invited to compete at the Nebraska FLL Championships Saturday at the Strategic Air and Space Museum.
Kobra Kai coach Sam Wagner said he didn't think his son was ready for Lego when Jackson won a set at age 5.
"To the surprise of my wife and myself, Jack ended up loving to build things with Lego," Wagner said.
Indeed, Jackson's interest in Lego as well as his involvement in FLL contests got his younger sisters involved. Well, at least in a roundabout way.
"Jack would go to these all-day FLL competitions," Olivia Wagner, a North Middle School sixth-grader, explained. "The entire family would have to tag along."
"And we'd be bored out of our minds," Grace Wagner, a Perry Creek Elementary School fifth-grader, interjected. "That is, until we were old enough to participate."
Since then, Grace and Olivia have been active members in Team Kobra Kai.
"It's more fun now." Olivia said. "There's always something to do."
Indeed, FLL teams need to demonstrate a variety of different skills. They must demonstrate core values in teamwork and professionalism; excel in research and presentation skills; be concise in mechanical design, programming and strategy; while keeping their wits during three timed rounds of robot games.
Luckily, Kobra Kai has a Mr. Fix-It in Aaron Plathe.
"I have a knack for making things work," the East Middle School eighth-grader explained. "That's my role in the team."
Which makes things easy for Jackson and Ean, who remains the most engineer-minded member of Kobra Kai.
"I like FLL because it always challenges you," Jackson said. "Once you think you have things figured out, something happens. Then, it's back to the drawing board."
Ean nodded his head in agreement.
"When it comes to FLL competitions, you always have to come with Plan A," he said. "But you also have a Plan B in case everything else goes wrong."