Each year, the FIRST Lego League launches a new annual challenge, intended to provide youth with experience in a real-world scientific area.

This year’s theme is “city shapers,” asking teams to answer the question “What if you could build a better world? Where would you begin?”

For six local competitors, their answer was downtown Verona.

On Monday, Nov. 11, Owen Welty, Will Wallace, Carter Pum, Jack Ross and Patrick Lindsey presented their vision to the Verona Common Council (Nathan Heil was not present) to fulfill part of their project.

The League is a partnership between the Lego company and the international nonprofit organization For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology or FIRST, which encourages youth to build leadership and life skills in areas of science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM. The projects are scored on creativity, research, innovation and how well the team shares their ideas with a group of professionals.

“They wanted to fulfill the challenge requirement but also get legitimate feedback to see if it’s a feasible idea,” parent and coach Errin Welty said of their presentation to the council.

The boys, all students at Savanna Oaks Middle School, presented a research proposal to improve the sustainability of the parking lot behind AJ’s Pizzeria and Diner on Main Street. The boys estimated the cost of implementing their proposal to be $222,301.

“They had to come up with an innovative idea to address a local problem they found,” Errin said. “The research project should create a more useful, more sustainable, or better experience to address a problem in the team’s community.”

Some of the problems they identified with the site included cracked pavement in the parking lot, lack of shade and excess heat, no place to sit or eat, and runoff.

“Our goal was to improve an underutilized space in our community. We chose the parking lot and blank wall behind AJ’s pizza. We wanted to make it a more productive and appealing space while also making it environmentally friendly,” Carter Pum said.

They proposed turning the blank wall on the backside of the building into a “living wall” which would use compost from food waste combined with rainwater to grow plants. They talked to AJ’s Pizzeria to calculate how much waste is generated by the business and estimated they could collect 21,996 pounds of compostable waste per year.

They also consulted with Upper Sugar River Watershed Association to understand runoff from nearby businesses into Sugar Creek.

They suggested replacing the concrete with more sustainable, permeable pavement to reduce runoff and flooding. One of these materials is TPR, made from plastic and glass, which is stronger than concrete or porcelain cement and takes less carbon to manufacture. They also suggested a material made from fly ash.

They proposed adding trees to the parking lot to make it more inviting and to reduce the heat island effect, in addition to absorbing carbon emissions from cars.

“We think our plan will draw more users to the parking lot by making it prettier,” Jack Ross said. “By adding shade and benches, we think it will draw more customers to AJ’s and Tuvalu, while also helping the community and the environment by reducing waste, carbon dioxide, water runoff and heat island effect.”

The council seemed impressed by the proposal from the six young men.

“I think it’s excellent work, you guys have done an excellent job,” Mayor Luke Diaz said in response to the presentation. “I think this is how you end up with a good downtown — it’s minor improvement on top of minor improvement. I’m super impressed by the research you’ve done, it’s top notch work.”

The team coordinated with the BadgerBOTS Robotics Education Center its first year but is now run independently, under the team name Destroyerbots, competing directly with other teams in the region in the FIRST Lego League challenge. This is the team’s fourth year.

The FIRST Lego League’s other annual challenge is the Robot Games, where teams participate in a series of robotics missions.

The Destroyerbots participated in the regional robotics tournament at Madison College on Nov. 16. They passed regionals and will appear in Waukesha Feb. 8 for sectionals.The team had made it to the state-level competition last year, but they aspire to reach nationals.Both the research project and the robotics mission implement FIRST Lego League’s six core values of discovery, innovation, impact, inclusion, teamwork and fun.

Welty estimates 70 percent of students who continue with the League through high school end up with college scholarships.

Contact Neal Patten, Verona Community Reporter at neal.patten@wcinet.com.