Earlier this month, I watched groups of kids ages 9 to 16 present their own original ideas for solving major food safety problems. They were participating in the annual First Lego League challenge, the robotics competition founded by inventor Dean Kamen and Lego. We heard ideas for better ways of monitoring the pH level of water used to raise farmed salmon and another idea for sorting safe, raw oysters from those contaminated with the bacterium Vibrio vulnificus using a conveyor belt equipped with a sensor and a robotic arm.

The competition has three components: a research component, where students identify a problem within a broader theme, investigate it, and come up with a solution that they present to a panel of judges; a robot-building component that involves programming a Lego Mindstorms robot to navigate a series of obstacle courses (shown above), and adherence to the First Lego code of conduct that includes presenting your research to the community, whether it's in church, in school or to family and friends.

One of the teams I met were the GearHawks of PS 399 in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. They attended a scrimmage organized by the New York Academy of Sciences, which mentors teams from schools that might not otherwise have the resources to participate in the competition. At the scrimmage, NYAS-sponsored teams faced off against a crossection of teams from public and private schools across New York City and surrounding areas.

Here's Nigel Wardally, 10, of the GearHawks explaining his oyster project, with teammate Maximus Britton, also 10, in the background. It's hard to hear him over the din in the background, but in the end he points out that V. vulnificus is a flesh-eating microbe:

And here's their robot on the obstacle course. This robot is not related to the conveyor belt system they thought of for their oyster project, but it is navigating an obstacle course with a food safety theme:

It's too late to sign up for the contest this year, but next fall’s project sounds equally interesting: ideas for improving quality of life for seniors.