The History of FIRST LEGO League in South Dakota

In 2008, Dr. Alan Swanson brought FIRST LEGO League to South Dakota, gathering a group of interested educators and science lovers to be coaches for what he thought would be 4 – 5 teams. A graduate of MIT, Dr. Swanson worked for many years at BAE Systems in New Hampshire – the birthplace of FIRST and FIRST LEGO League. He recognized the need for a program in South Dakota that emphasizes the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and math). After the group saw a competition in Minneapolis, MN, and the excitement and fervor of the teams. FIRST LEGO League took off in South Dakota. That first year, the anticipated 4 – 5 teams great to 14 teams! The FIRST LEGO League leaders from Iowa graciously invited any South Dakota teams to participate in regional events. Several of them even went on to the Iowa State Competition – the perfect ending to their first season.

That first year also gave rise to a new group, the South Dakota Robotics Association. Dan and Robyn Swets, and Kevin and Cindy Anderson, after coaching their team and seeing the intensity of the kids’ excitement, formed the non-profit to teach robotics and engineering classes and allow South Dakota to become an official FIRST LEGO League region. SDRA was designed to bring “engineering for all ages” as well as a coach to teacher workshops.

Each subsequent season saw the number of FIRST LEGO League teams doubling. The program spread across South Dakota and held its own tournament. The South Dakota Championship Event, held at Central Baptist Church in Sioux Falls, was an enormous success two years in a row, with 58 teams from South Dakota and Iowa participating. In 2011, newly minted partner Dan Swets, Judge Advisor Kevin Anderson and Head Referee Josh Lambrecht intended to travel to Rapid City to help with their first-ever scrimmage practice for teams West River. Their plane crashed immediately after takeoff, and the season was thrown into shambles.

Robyn and Cindy took over their husband’s positions within SDRA and FIRST LEGO League, and held a successful tournament at Augustana College, the new home of our events, in February of 2012. The following year, team growth reached the tipping point, and a qualifying level had to be instituted – teams compete at regional events, in Rapid City and Sioux Falls hoping to win the chance to attend the state championship.

After three years, the SDRA board decided that they needed a new FIRST LEGO League partner organization to ensure the program would continue to thrive while they moved on to coordinate efforts between all different robotics programs statewide. After a lengthy interview process, EmBe was chosen by FIRST and took over as our partner organization. EmBe’s mission is to empower women and families to enrich lives, which brings a great new facet to our FIRST LEGO League program. Today marks the third championship overseen by EmBe, our seventh at Augustana, and our ninth in South Dakota, a wonderful achievement for South Dakota and its many volunteers.

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