Teams from Ledyard's Young Engineers head to state Lego League tournament
Ledyard — In a small classroom at Gales Ferry School on Wednesday afternoon, hours after most kids have gone home for the day, a group of students stomps their feet, claps their hands and chants every element on the periodic table from memory.
The periodic table is followed by a song about the planets in the solar system, bones in the body and then each letter of the alphabet — with students making the corresponding sign in American Sign Language.
This is Ledyard's Young Engineers and Robotics group — an after-school program based on the nationwide Lego robotics program — with its dedicated director, Maze Stephan.
Its success has shown; now in its fourth year, the program has three teams that will be competing in the state "FIRST Lego League" tournament Saturday at Shelton High School, alongside 45 others.
Unlike previous years, the winner this year also has a ticket to the national tournament in St. Louis.
The program is part summer camp and part academic decathlon. Students in the Young Engineers and Robotics program spend the first hour after school finishing homework and then go straight back into the classroom. Stephan, a semi-retired mechanical and metallurgical engineer who serves as the program's leader, asks them questions about Albert Einstein and Dmitri Mendeleev and has them list facts about the evolution of bones.
"When I first started, it was about 'how do I entertain these kids?'" said Stephan, who has done youth outreach for St. David's Church for years. "But I found it was better to come up with really cool information they could learn."
The program began as an outreach program of the church in 2011, and moved into the space in Gales Ferry School two years ago.
There's a waitlist for the program, which Stephan said it pains her to have. But she said there are only so many volunteer parents that are able to help out. She also charges a modest fee; however, no children are ever turned away due to their inability to pay, she said.
The group does a variety of activities to develop interest in science and technology, but for the two months starting in September, the students focus on their Lego robot league.
Lego League is part of a global organization, "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology," or FIRST, which aims to develop science and technology skills in secondary schoolchildren. It was developed by Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway.
The state tournament involves two challenges: a robotics component and a project presentation. Judging is split between a team's performance on those two challenges and a third criteria: careful observation of participants' teamwork.
The robotics component involves teams building a Lego robot they can program on their computer to complete a series of challenges, including hitting buttons and weaving around obstacles within a short time frame of two-and-a-half minutes.
The theme of competition this year is "Animal Allies," which asks teams to develop ideas about how humans can help animals, and vice versa.
Ledyard has three teams in the competition: the Spiky Sprockets Gold team, the AuSum team and E3, representing Ledyard Middle School — each with a unique idea about how to aid an animal.
For the Spiky Sprockets Gold Team, this is their second time qualifying for the state tournament.
The sprockets, the first team established in the program, has split into three separate teams in recent years due to its popularity, including ReBOOT, an all-girls team.
The Gold team is made up of fifth-graders Luca Viviano, Brady Moorehead, Sebastian Fieldsend, Mateo Viviano, Sean Harren and Michael Stephan.
Luca Viviano and Harren are the main programmers, but everyone has a role — they each present a part of their animal allies presentation.
In the back of their mind is the first year they competed in first grade. Their very basic robot didn't get far. But while watching the other robots and teams that went through the course, they were inspired.
"We wanted to be like them," Moorehead said.
On Wednesday, the team went through each stage of the competition in a flash — tearing out different specialized components they've designed to complete the challenge and adding more on.
They chalk up their success to "hours and hours of sitting in bed and looking up stuff" on YouTube, Michael Stephan said.
They faced a real challenge programming their robot to curve toward a particular obstacle, but Harren and Luca Viviano overcame it by programming it to go at a 90-degree angle instead.
Years later, the team is "probably 50 times better now," Harren said.
Their presentation idea was to develop an all-in-one lawn and garden "box" to make lawn and property more welcoming to the threatened eastern cottontail rabbit, whose meadowland habitat is in danger.
Local lawn and garden retailer Holdridges, who put them through a Shark Tank-style audition, already has ordered several.
AuSum (named after the Periodic sign for Gold) has developed a straw-in-jar system for dislodging, capturing and humanely releasing spiders.
For the members of the seventh-grade team E3, most of whom have been friends for years, the robotics was a painstaking process of trial and error.
Programmer Arielle Leflamme said the design was intended to minimize the weight and size of the robot for the course.
"We knew it was going to be a lot of tight space turns and narrow spaces ... we knew it couldn't be that big," she said about the design.
E3's presentation will be members' idea for a speaker that generates different noises to scare away deer that might not hear a car barreling toward them.
But on Wednesday, they were focused on running a challenge of delivering plastic "food blocks" to different targets over and over again to try to earn all of the possible points.
They have a lot of practice to complete before Thursday, Leflamme said, but they're a fast team and they're optimistic about the state tournament.
"It's stressful. Sometimes the robot doesn't work or do what you want it to do," she said.
But, she said, "We're all hoping."
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