Humber Valley school wins at Canadian robotics competition

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Judges find research into ice storms’ impact on power lines ‘well researched’ and has ‘potential for true implementation’


The concept of insulating power lines against destructive ice storms with paint infused with Anti-Freeze Proteins found in Siberian beetles has won an Etobicoke elementary school’s robotics team top prize in a national contest.

Humber Valley Village Junior Middle School’s Category 10 robotics team beat 71 international teams to win in the research project category at the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Lego League International Open Canada 2014 held June 4-7 at University of Toronto’s downtown campus.

The competition judged students in four areas: robot design, research project, core values including “gracious professionalism”, teamwork, fun and “co-opertition”, and moving their robot autonomously through a set of tasks on a playing field.

FIRST Robotics Canada runs First Lego League (FLL), a program that introduces young students to real-world engineering challenges by engaging them to build Lego-based robots designed to complete tasks on a thematic playing surface.

This year’s FLL competition’s challenge was Nature’s Fury, with student teams researching and presenting solutions to natural disasters.

Humber Valley Village’s nine grades 6 and 7 students’ research led them to interview Yale University undergraduate student Aaron Hakim by Skype. Hakim and his student colleagues’ research paper on the Siberian beetle’s Anti-Freeze Protein implications for ice binding appeared on the cover of the April 2013 edition of The Journal of Biological Chemistry.

The team then toured and asked questions at an Etobicoke company that designs and tests hydro towers.

“You extract the AFP (Anti-Freeze Protein) from the gene strand of a Rhagium inquisitor beetle. Then you insert it into E.coli, which duplicates quickly and reproduces the AFP gene, as well. You put it into a centrifuge to separate them and express the AFP,” team member Hewitt McGaughey, 12, explained.

Taylor Thiele, 13, said one factor strongly differentiated their research from others’: “A lot of other teams presented mechanical solutions. Ours was a chemical solution.”

The team also garnered top marks for creativity. They delivered their five-message research project presentation as a newscast. Anna Thomas, 12, wrote the script and played anchor, along with Keegan Saunders, 12. Team robotics engineer Luiza Lena performed the reporter role, interviewed families and provided ice storm power outage statistics.

Judges were suitably impressed.

“It was very well researched with a global use of experts,” one judge wrote.

“I loved the use of recombinant AFP and its potential for true implementation,” wrote another.

“Funny presentation. Great use of teamwork,” commented the third.

Students won the FLL International Open Canada 2014 Research Award First Place, a twin Lego trophy to its win in January of the Ontario West Provincial FLL Championship Tournament Champion’s Award Second Place.

Principal Romina Barone-Pace gathered eight of the nine winning team in her office Wednesday morning for a media interview.

“I’m very proud of them. I’m very impressed,” she said. “They invested so much of their personal time and really represented the school and Canada with great pride and sportsmanship.”

Students put in more than 120 hours in sessions after school Tuesdays and Thursdays since September, as well as at night and on weekends. Homework was also involved.

Students cited a love of math, science, engineering and programming, and an opportunity to patent a research project among their loves of the FLL competition.

“Coach Dino (Sbrocca) actually teaches us 10 to 20 minutes of science before each session,” Thomas said of her favourite part of the experience. “It’s really interesting. The science is a lot higher than our usual learning. It’s a really great program. It gets kids inspired to learn about engineering and science.”

Sbrocca described the competition as “tough”.

“Their research project was quite exceptional,” said Sbrocca, a software developer who invested hundreds of volunteer hours as the robotics team’s head coach.

“The research they did, they people they talked to, the quality of the science they did. These kids can tell you how gene splicing works. Taking the gene out of the beetle and sticking it in E.coli. That’s pretty far for grades 6 and 7.”

A self-described “math and science guy,” Sbrocca imparted his love of science to students, who spoke excitedly about the day Sbrocca brought a sun telescope to the school to enable them to look directly at the sun.

“They really enjoyed it. I think it made science exciting for them…” Sbrocca said. “We had a really great team this year. Not only the kids, but the coaching team, as well.”

Category 10 team coaches included teacher Mark Dickson “who put in a lot more than a regular teacher commitment,” and parent volunteers Dr. Jacquie Curtis and Bronwen Thomas “who have been instrumental in helping the team achieve a higher level of success than in past years,” Sbrocca said.

Sbrocca’s daughter and past team member Rheanne and former team member Nathan Thomas acted as mentors.

For more information about FLL, visit

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