Team Phoenix, six science-savvy middle school boys from Lafayette, will travel to Fayetteville, Arkansas, with their LEGO robot in May to compete against 72 teams from across the world in the First LEGO League competition.

In the league, teams of six create an innovative solution to a problem and present their end product to a panel of engineering and computer science professionals.

Team Phoenix competed in the state competition in December, and as its project, the team set out to tackle how to break down polystyrene, also known as Styrofoam, instead of dumping it into the ocean or a landfill.

After competing against 145 other teams at state, Team Phoenix placed second overall.

The league has grown significantly in Lafayette over the past few years, said Douglas Williams, Team Phoenix’s mentor and a University of Louisiana at Lafayette education professor. There were 25 teams from the city competing at the state competition in December, he said, while in 2010 there were six Lafayette teams competing there.

“The big advantage is that they really are truly engaged in problem solving,” Williams said. “I think in most schools there’s not enough time in a school day to go deep and focus on one problem for several months, and I think that’s what this program affords.”

In preparation for competing, the team began meeting once a week at the beginning of the season in September, and increased meeting days and meeting length the closer they got to the state competition in December.

After months of research for a project for the state competition, the team designed a recycling center, which uses a microbe found in mealworms that can break down the foam.

“To see them thinking as they’re solving a problem, and thinking differently to solve those problems, it’s very inspiring,” said Williams, who has been mentoring First LEGO League teams since 2009.

Another part of the competition has the players build and program an autonomous LEGO robot to navigate a playing field that has obstacle challenges the robot must complete.

“LEGOs is my current favorite toy,” said Benjamin Chopin, 12, whose specialty on the team is programming the robot.

Benjamin said he has many good memories this year, his first on the team, but traveling is what he enjoyed the most.

One modification that the kids built onto their robot this year was walls to protect the color-sensitive sensors on the bottom of the machine from outside light.

“It’s innovation and effort that sets them apart,” Williams said. “The kids do all of the thinking and designing.”

They find out about the team by word of mouth.

“We’re all friends, we’re all homeschooled, and we have so much fun together at competitions,” Joseph Williams, 10, said. “We play soccer together; we pretty much do everything together. We love building things.”

Joseph is the third of his brothers to compete with the team, which he said was a tradition in his family.