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Excitement builds among crowd at Lego competition

By Staff | Nov 25, 2016

Area students and their robotic constructions competed in an exciting and challenging competition at the Shepherd University Wellness Center on Saturday.

The First Lego League qualifying tournament brought together 16 West Virginia teams consisting of students aged 9 to 14 for a chance to compete at the state tournament at Fairmont University.

The free event was hosted by the Shepherd University department of computer science, mathematics and engineering with STEM students and members of the community judging the projects.

“It gets these kids involved in STEM, programming and teamwork,” said Sytil Murphy, assistant professor of physics at Shepherd. “It’s what we need for our state, country and world.”

The event promotes early involvement in science, technology, engineering and mathematics in a fun, party-like atmosphere.

“We’re training new leaders,” Murphy said. “They could eventually take us to Mars or who knows where.”

This year’s theme was “animal allies” and promoted an understanding of the natural world, utilizing animals and emphasizing the world around us.

“Each robot completes a task,” Murphy said. “It’s been going on for several years and is the biggest Lego event in the state. Today, seven of 14 teams will go on to compete in the state competition.”

Awards are based on the robotics relation to the animal ally theme, the design and the adherence to the core values of the league, which are based around friendly competition, teamwork and ability to problem solve.

“These kids are using math skills to solve real world problems,” said Jamie Ford, education specialist with NASA at the Fairmont facility. “They are given a task and they work on coming up with innovative solutions to solve that problem.”

Ford said the competition has grown tremendously over the years.

“We’ve grown from three to 60 teams in West Virginia,” Ford said. “It’s a great event that creates excitement and exposes students to new ideas. We try to make it a party-like environment.”

Ford also said the competition increases college attendance.

“We want kids to step into universities,” Ford said. “What we’ve seen is, kids who compete at these universities are more likely to go to the school they competed at, and that’s what we want.”

West Virginian teams have had success over the years, with two teams winning the international competition but win or lose, all students involved walk away learning important skills.

“It’s fun working as a team to build robots,” said Leo Cucuzzella, student competitor with the Shepherdstown Sockeye Salmon. “We got our name from the salmon that stick together as a team when swimming upstream.”

The students were not the only ones having a good time.

“This is our second year and it’s a great,” said Robie DiBiasi, Shepherdstown resident and team coach. “It’s a great opportunity to build, program and work as a team. They have to come up with a solution to a challenge and it’s a nice combination of creativity and logic.”

DiBiasi said any parent can get their child involved.

“Any parent can do this,” DiBiasi said. “There’s a misconception that you need a background in robotics or science or something, but really the kids come up with it all themselves and they have a great time doing it.”

Other coaches appeared excited for the competition as well.

“Last year was our first year getting into it after watching the competition,” said Andrea Corum, of Shepherdstown. “It’s really easy to get into and the children love it. They work together great, there’s a lot of thinking involved and they really enjoy it.”

Teams from throughout the Panhandle came to show off their robots.

“This is our second year and the teams have really grown in the area,” said Emily Milleson, coach of Lego Lunatics from Springfield. “The kid’s interest drove the whole thing. I don’t think we realized what we were getting into but they love it.”

Milleson said she’s seen her competitors change in the process.

“I’ve seen our team grow a lot,” Milleson said. “From teamwork to problem-solving to programming, it’s neat. The robots won’t always do what they thought, and can be frustrating, but they really stay with it and work together to solve the problem. It’s really rewarding for me to see and for them.”

The student judges also said they had a great time helping.

“These kids are really smart,” said Emily Bain, a senior at Martinsburg High School. “They bring their robots and it’s pretty awesome. People from all over the area come to compete.”

Some of the judges wish they had become involved earlier.

“I wish it was around when I was in school,” said Rachelle Huff, senior at Shepherd and member of the robotics club. “It’s a lot of fun and a good opportunity to learn. It really is a great base to get the basics of programming and engineering.”