Students go to school on Lego toys at competition

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“How do we learn best?”


That was a question posed to 250 youngsters representing 26 school teams from across the York Region and the GTA at St. Robert Catholic High School in Thornhill Saturday.


The students, all under 15, were required to solve the dilemma with the use of Lego toys.


No, not the the brick-shaped objects the elder generation might associate with Lego.


The product has come a long way, including Lego robots and the computer software used to mobilize them.


The youngsters in attendance were competing in the First Lego League qualifying tournament.


Dave Ellis, First Lego League Ontario director, said the top five teams from this event will advance to the eastern provincial championships at UOIT in Oshawa Jan. 17.


Another regional qualifier will see the top five teams advance to the western provincials at the University of Waterloo Feb. 7.


Teams of up to 10 students, male, female or mixed entries, began to tackle the problem once school began in September as the First Lego League reveals their theme for the upcoming season one year in advance.


With the planning stages being an on-going process until the qualifier, the participating teams then go through a three-phase competitive interview segment that begins in the morning with judging sessions.


During the first interview session, Ellis said the teams show the judging panel what they have done and in turn, the judges might ask the participants about their robot design.


After that initial session, the teams then present their research project on what is described as a mat or a board measuring four feet by eight feet.


The third stage, known as the core values room, has the participants being judged on how they interact with each other and function as a team.


Upon conclusion of the interview segment, the teams can then make any necessary adjustments and conduct a couple of practice matches before the actual competition is staged in the afternoon.


In the matches, the teams have two and one half minutes to accomplish as many of the 15 outlined challenges as they can.


The key, Ellis was quick to note, is that the teams do not have to do all 15 but try to do the ones they feel most confident with in order to accumulate points, of which 60 per cent is gained through the morning interviews, that will count towards the final standings.


The event, also held at St. Robert Catholic last year,  continues to grow in popularity.


Paul Keenan, tournament director and a former teacher at St. Robert, recalled there were 17 teams entered last year.


Delvin Chomiak, a teacher at St. Paul’s Catholic Elementary School in Newmarket, is in his fifth year of directing a First Lego League team. When he first got involved, five years ago, there were just 12 teams.


“This has come a long ways,” he said.


This year, Chomiak directed two teams, one comprised of all boys and for the first time, an all-girls team known as the Technicats.


“This year we said ‘what if we tried to put together an all girls team?’ and when we announced it, we had 11 girls come out,” he said.


With the competition tailored for youngsters 14 years of age and under, some teams face a bit of a disadvantage.


Especially those where there’s an annual turnover such as the entry from St. Maximilian Kolbe Catholic High School in Aurora, which had a Grade 9 entry  – the only high school team competing.


“For a high school team like us we have a new team each year since the competition is basically for students in Grade 9 or lower,” said St. Maximilian teacher Maddalena Kleine. “At elementary schools you can have the same team for students from grades 4 to 8.


“But I have some students who have done this at the elementary school level.”


In trying to explain the escalating popularity of the First Lego League, Kleine speculated it’s due to the thrill of competition.


“It’s the challenge the students have in doing this,” she said. “And you get to tinker with toys and at the same time you are learning science, technology, engineering and math.”


“It’s making S (science) T (technology), E (engineering) M (math) fun,” said Bob Chirrey, a St. Robert teacher who heads up their robotics club.


Ellis feels the competition through the usage of Lego products is an invaluable instrument in preparing youngsters for what could lie ahead once they graduate from school and enter the working world.


“To develop these skills is important because you don’t know down the road what’s in store with our daily lives,” he said. “You don’t know what our work force will need down the road. We have to prepare them to learn new things and we feel this is one way to furnish this information,” he said.


As for next season, Ellis revealed the theme has already been chosen ­ how to deal with trash.


Registration begins in May.


As for the cost in acquiring the required items, he pointed out a robot and accompanying software is around $600, mat and mission models are around $100 and there’s a $225 U.S. entry fee.


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