Heritage Christian's FIRST Lego League team wins international championship award

Spectators watch members of Heritage Christian’s SHIELD team compete in the FIRST Lego League World Festival in April.

Spectators watch members of Heritage Christian’s SHIELD team compete in the FIRST Lego League World Festival in April.

May 27, 2014

For many school robotics teams, the season is over.

The FIRST Championship ended in April, and summer is quickly approaching.

But for middle school students in Heritage Christian School's Patriot Robotics program, there is still a lot of work to do.

Patriot Robotics is a culmination of the middle school's robotics programs in the FIRST foundation — For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. FIRST provides students a chance to participate in robotics programs designed for their grade level.

The program includes the FIRST Tech Challenge (for high school students), FIRST Lego League (for middle school and elementary school students) and the Junior FIRST Lego League (for younger elementary students).

The Heritage Christian middle school and high school, located at 175 South Barker Road, have a total of eight FIRST teams in the programs.

The school's FLL team called The Strategic Headquarters of Innovative Engineering and Limitless Design, or SHIELD, recently won the third place championship award at the FIRST Lego League Festival in St. Louis, Missouri, in April.

"It's pretty rare to have a chance at going to the world festival, let alone earning such a top award," said Mark Keup, volunteer director of the school's Patriot Robotics program.

FLL regions are selected by lottery to send their first place champion's award-winning team to the World Festival, "so not only do you have to win the regional competition, you have to win it on the right year … to go to the World Festival," Keup said.

The festival hosts about 85 international teams each year, according to the program's website.

SHIELD's third place championship award "was the highest honor awarded to any Lego League team in the western hemisphere and the highest award given to a middle school team in the world," Keup said. "… The kids were very, very excited when they found ou because they thought they did pretty well — but they didn't know how well."

Teams competed in this year's FLL "Nature's Fury" contest, which required students to program Lego robots and give a presentation that addressed a natural disaster.

But SHIELD's research project on hurricane-proof shelters quickly extended beyond the FLL competitions; the project became a passion.

More work to do

Although the Nature's Fury contest applied only to the school's SHIELD Lego League team, all of Heritage Christian's FIRST teams helped with the research, Keup said.

During the winter months, the teams feverishly researched potential hurricane-proof school buildings for Haiti and consulted architectural firm Christopher Kidd and Associates for help. The firm was able to turn the teams' initial concepts for the structures into blueprints, which were presented at the competitions.

"Our design helps with the significant education need in Haiti, while also providing shelter from oncoming hurricanes, a safe place during earthquakes and a source of clean drinking water," Sam Gibbons, the project's eighth-grade research leader, told the international panel of judges at the World Festival.

"This began as a research project, but it became more important to them than anything else," Keup said. "They really took ownership of it, and now they're raising money to make this work."

Since the World Festival, SHIELD has continued to foster partnerships with local businesses and contacts in Haiti. The team hopes to raise $118,000 to implement their designs in Haiti sometime in the future.

"Most kids would be done with their Lego League projects long ago, but this is a very dynamic bunch of kids," Keup said. "They realize that saving lives is more important than a plastic trophy … and if awards come a long, we'll take them — but our goal is to help others before all else."

To help others within the FIRST Lego League program, SHIELD is also in the process of writing a 600-page manual to help teams learn its unique programming process and techniques used to form the software.

The team has also hosted robotics camps within the central city of Milwaukee to introduce new students to First Lego League robotics and to promote awareness of STEM careers.

STEM — which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — is a series of educational programs designed for different grade levels that encourage hands-on learning.

To further emphasize the importance of engineering and robotics in schools, SHIELD contacted Governor Scott Walker's office prior to the FLL World Festival.

Shortly after the festival, Walker proclaimed April 29 to be "Innovative Engineering and Limitless Design Day" throughout the state.

"Some adults think kids can't make a difference in the world," seventh-grader Vivica Lewis told the panel of judges at the festival, "but we think we can."

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