LEGO competition teaches students science, service

Saturday was a big day for a group of middle school students at Chestnut Hill Academy. They set a fractured bone, debuted their diabetes research and unveiled their iPhone app plans. All in just eight hours. It was all the culmination of weeks’ worth of hard work, extensive research and lots of LEGOS. CHA, along with Mount St. Joseph Academy and Springside School, hosted and participated in the FIRST LEGO League competition.Though this marked the first year for CHA, FLL is an international event that’s been engaging students for more than a decade.Dubbed by many at the event as the “future engineers of the world,” the 40 teams of students who participated in the qualifying tournament competed in research, robotics and values categories.”The students are very self-motivated,” CHA director of library services Rene DeBerardinis said of her team of fourth- fifth- and sixth-grade boys.DeBerardinis worked with the students after school, during school and on Sundays to help develop their project for this year’s Body Forward theme.Required by FFL to focus on solving or improving a medical condition, the boys chose to hone in on diabetes — a disease that affects their families, classmates and friends.After time spent interviewing acquaintances about their struggles with the disease, the two teams — robotics and project — came together with their research to create an autonomous robot (made from LEGOS, of course) designed to address diabetes treatment and prevention and used their findings to develop an iPhone app for diabetes patients.H.t.A.P. takes the pain out of finger pricking. The (theoretical) High-tech Artificial Pancreas app, among other things, allows those with diabetes to simply press their index fingers to the phone’s touch screen to check their insulin levels.The boys’ dedication to the project might even earn them a spot at Childrens Hospital of Philadelphia’s diabetes fair in April. So impressed with the students’ work, CHOP is coordinating with the team to raise diabetes awareness at this week’s CHA book fair.Results like those are what inspired Peter Randall to lead the inaugural CHA robotics team.”The key thing to remember about FIRST,” Randall said, “is they try to get kids engaged in aspects beyond the competition.”The robots, anyone from FIRST will tell you, are a trick. The real focus of the competition is to bring students together around core values. So while the 9- to 14-year-old competitors are first drawn in by the reds, blues and yellows of shiny plastic LEGO robots, what they’re really learning is teamwork, diligence and service.”Once you get ’em in the door, you can do so much,” Randall said, citing a near catastrophe early in the day when a student dropped his robot, the shell cracking and LEGOS scattering across the floor. Within seconds, Randall said, kids on other teams jumped in to help bring the robot back to life. “That doesn’t happen at a hockey game,” he said.The upbeat, eager attitude of the teams was as much a theme at the FLL competition as the Body Forward one. Even as the day wore on and the 60 rounds of robotics battles finally ended, the nearly 400 kids from all over Pennsylvania and New Jersey were cheering on themselves and each other, dancing together as they waiting for the awards ceremony.After eight long hours of competitions and interviews with judges, kids and their families packed the bleachers of the CHA gymnasium to find out who’d be going home with trophies and who’d be advancing to the tournament next month at the University of Delaware.The CHA students waited with smiles and applause in their navy blue shirts as awards were called out, each winning team high-fiving the judges as their names were called.CHA earned three honors. Its Vulcan Robotics team won first place for the most points scored during match-ups (325) and third place overall. The team will also advance to the tournament in Delaware.But as Randall predicted and FIRST sets out to do, the chance to move forward in the competition mattered much more than the trophy to the Vulcan Robotics team. The boys are just looking forward to working alongside one another again and seeing what their peers from around the nation can teach them.”Kids love doing the right thing when it’s expected of them,” Randall said. “[The FLL event] is such a win for kids.”

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