By Deborah Welky
Small, plastic Lego bricks are ubiquitous in most homes with school-age children. The bricks are a staple of creativity for children and adults alike, evolving into much more than a toy. In fact, they are also a key component of a robotics program that teaches students STEM skills like engineering and technology.
Four years ago, Wellington’s Elbridge Gale Elementary School created a Lego Robotics team, which was an instant hit with students. It is currently operated by teachers Tara Dicurcio and Nicole Crane.
“I wanted to coach because I’m interested in robotics myself. I wanted to learn along with the kids,” Dicurcio said.
“The season typically starts in August with competitions running from February through March,” Crane added. “Last year, that was extended while everyone figured out the logistics of competing virtually.”
The teachers’ dedication propelled the school’s 2020-21 team to new heights, which included an invitation to participate in the FIRST Lego League Virtual Open International, headquartered in Greece.
The “Gator Bots” team was comprised of Corben Dicurcio, Skyler Peterson, Cristopher Martin-Aguirre, Yashasvi Rajpurohit, Colbie Phillips, Chris Powell, Oliver Parreco and Ariana Porterfield. They entered the qualifier, participating with students from Martin, Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties in an effort to receive an award and advance to regionals.
Advance, they did. The regional competition heated up with new participants from as far away as Key West and, when the dust settled, Elbridge Gale’s Gator Bots were selected by judges as one of seven Florida teams to represent the United States in Greece. They were one of just 59 teams invited from throughout the U.S., and one of only 200 selected from a worldwide pool of 350,000 competitors.
Of course, last year, no one was physically going to Greece.
“As any educator would say, it was challenging to stay engaged across multiple platforms — with some students working from home and some not,” Crane said. “It was difficult to coordinate but, at the end of the day, the pandemic may have actually worked in our favor. There are six core values that the students work on developing as part of the competition, and two of those are inclusion and teamwork. Restrictions imposed due to the pandemic helped the students to develop that core set as the season went on.”
In addition to making sure all in-person and virtual teammates felt included, the students had to wear masks, so it was difficult to understand each other at times. They also had to stay six feet apart — especially challenging when collaborating and building with tiny bricks. Wearing gloves and repeatedly sanitizing everything they touched slowed things down a bit, too.
Their coaches were there for guidance only. “It shouldn’t be me doing the project,” Dicurcio said. “Our motto around here is ‘Kid Done, Kid Fun.’ For instance, if they needed a new coding system to help put everything together, I could research a fantastic tutorial set, pull those lessons and show them step-by-step, but they’d have to figure out how to apply it. If they wanted to add a line-follower to their build, I could show them how to develop it, but they’re the ones who have to decide how to apply that knowledge to the robot.”
Sounds seamless, right?
Not always. The team experienced several setbacks along their path to glory, not the least of which was having their computer crash the day before the qualifier round. They lost all their content and had to learn the skills necessary to develop their app and rebuild in time to compete the next day. The silver lining? They received the Break-Through Award, given to the team that “faces a challenge and continues pressing forward.”
Setbacks are a part of life, and these Wellington students are now better prepared to deal with them.
“Creativity and problem-solving are two of the strongest components of the program,” Crane said. “It’s not just building and engineering skill sets; there’s a lot of technology, a lot of research. Each year, the students are learning things that I facilitate but, very often, the students know the coding and programs and vocabulary better than I do. And, if they don’t know it, they learn it faster than I can.”
In 2020-21, the robotics league program assigned a timely challenge that would require competitors to develop a solution to an existing problem — retaining health and fitness during a pandemic.
“It was a pretty good topic,” Crane said. “How do people exercise when they’re afraid to go outside? How do you incorporate space with social-distancing recess options? How can students even do PE in a distance-learning situation? The team had to find ways, so they created a survey, got the survey out there and collected data to see which direction they should go in when solving their problem. They got a crash course in learning some different strategies to do that, and watching them do their exercise was fun. It was pretty cute.”
The teachers know they are preparing their students not only for jobs but for life.
“The six core values are the guiding force for Lego Robotics — discovery, innovation, impact, inclusion, teamwork and fun,” Crane said. “Teams are judged on their use of teamwork — that their project was done together, not individually. They are taught respect and embracing differences and not leaving anyone out. They do coding, programming and public speaking. Ultimately, they built a virtual fitness trail to help people remain active during COVID-19.”
Along the way, they learned skills and had unique experiences that will be able to take with them no matter where they end up heading in life.
Visit www.firstlegoleague.org to learn more about the FIRST Lego League program.