Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was a Beverly school’s world championship-caliber Lego robot.
After a disappointing finish in last year’s FIRST LEGO League (FLL) qualifier in Revere, Waring School eighth-graders Owen Cooper, Chris Douglas, and Peter Hanna spent more than 150 hours of their free time building a Lego robot and doing scientific research to prepare for this fall’s Lego robotics competitions.
Their hard work paid off.
The group won in Revere this year and went on to win Saturday’s Eastern Massachusetts championship competition in Newton, wowing the judges with their outstanding teamwork, robot, and research project to become one of two Massachusetts teams to qualify for the FLL world championship in Detroit.
“We were in disbelief. We felt like were dreaming for a while,” said Cooper, 13. “We didn’t think that would happen at all.”
For the team and its coaches, the first-place finish came as somewhat of a surprise, after technical difficulties in the robot games category set them back in overall points. But they redeemed themselves in the core values, or teamwork, category and in the presentation of their research project, which propelled them to the top spot.
“I got emotional. Some tears may have been shed,” said team coach Francis Schaeffer, recalling the moment the judges announced his team as the winner Saturday. “I’m standing there with the moms and dads, otherwise reserved engineer-type parents. This is what they would have wanted when they were kids.”
Schaeffer, a physics teacher at the Waring School, a coed private middle and high school in Beverly, helped to found the team in the summer of 2017, after the school got funding to turn an unused basement space into a learning center for science, technology, engineering, and math, he said.
The students on the team had to learn how to code so they could create a robot that would be able to complete certain tasks at competitions. With little time to prepare for its first competition last fall, the team did “OK,” and did not qualify for the Eastern Massachusetts championship, Schaeffer said. (Both the Eastern Massachusetts and Western Massachusetts champions go to the world championship.)
But the students, determined to get better and become contenders this year, kept training even after the season was over, teaching themselves how to become better computer programmers, Schaeffer said.
“It makes a huge difference if you can write really good code,” he said. “When it came to August of this year, everyone was primed and ready.”
In addition to programming its Lego robot, the team worked on its research project, which was not robot-related. The students spent weeks e-mailing back and forth with NASA plant physiologist Raymond Wheeler, who helped them research a potential solution to the challenge of growing vegetables in outer space.
The team submitted a 40-page binder outlining their proposition, which was to build two cylindrical hydroponic chambers for a spacecraft. The chambers would rotate in opposite directions to minimize torque and save the spacecraft fuel that would otherwise go toward stabilization, Schaeffer said.
“The kids developed new stuff I don’t even know about,” he said. “At a certain point, they surpass us as coaches and they’re just doing it. And that’s what’s supposed to happen.”
The team will head to Detroit for the world championship in April and miss a couple days of class (don’t worry — they got the green light from their parents and the school). They’ll compete against teams from approximately 70 countries and learn from teams of older students while they’re there, hopefully giving them experience and knowledge they can use for future tournaments, Schaeffer said.
“When I teach physics, I’m the expert, but here, I facilitate, and they’re the drivers of the ideas,” he said. “To see how creative and smart 13-year-olds can be is amazing.”Andres Picon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @andpicon.