First Howdy Expo held at Texas A&M University

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Laughter and excited chatter could be heard throughout the hallways of Thompson Hall recently as the first Howdy Jr. FIRST LEGO League (FLL) Expo kicked off. More than 200 children, parents, faculty, staff and volunteers attended the event.

Jr. FLL (for ages 6 through 9) allows children to use their imaginations to explore the wonders of science and technology. The program uses real-world scientific concepts that teams must explore through research, teamwork, construction and imagination.

Weeks of preparation culminated in the Howdy Expo, where LEGO models and poster designs were on display for reviewers to judge. 

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“It was a humbling experience to be a part of the community to provide something so enriching to the kids,” said Dr. Malini Natarajarathinam, Expo organizer, whose two children participated in the event.

This year’s theme, “Waste Wise,” taught team members the importance of recycling. It’s a lesson that really resonated with Bonham Elementary School third-grader Jase Cotton. His mother, Betty Cotton, said her son thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

“They went out to Brazos Valley Recycling Center and they also had Keep Brazos Beautiful come and speak with them,” Betty Cotton said. “They donated some recycling bins for the school, and the boys really learned a lot.”

Cotton, who along with another mother organized the team her son participated on, said her son and his teammates will likely participate in FLL when they are older. FLL is for children ages 9 through 13.

Dr. Michael Johnson, associate professor in the engineering technology and industrial distribution department, coached the “Robot Kids” team from South Knoll Elementary School. His son, a second-grader, was on the team.

“It’s been very exciting,” he said. “I learned a lot interacting with the kids, going through the design process, building, doing research.”

As an engineer, Johnson said it was rewarding to see his son get excited about the engineering process.

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“Sparking that interest is what it’s all about,” said Shawna Fletcher, director of the Women in Engineering Program at Texas A&M. “There is such an interest for this here, and people have been waiting for something like this. It’s for the community.”

Natarajarathinam recruited Fletcher to help with the Howdy Expo because she has been involved with FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) for about 15 years.

“I love the organization,” Fletcher said. “It’s not just about what the teams do, it’s the culture. FIRST has this mantra of Gracious Professionalism and Coopertition®. Teams are not just interacting with themselves, but they interact with other teams. That’s why the Howdy Expo is important.”

The event ended with a high-five ceremony, which Natarajarathinam said was her favorite part. Medals and trophies were handed out to beaming children, proud of their accomplishments.

“I know it takes a village to raise a child,” Natarajarathinam said. “I want to thank the community for allowing us to be a part of their village.”