AP NEWS

Shelton takes on the LEGO robot world

December 23, 2018

SHELTON — Ask any member of one of the two Shelton teams representing Connecticut at the FIRST LEGO League World Festival in Detroit in 2019 and they will tell you what they do is so much more than playing with the icon plastic building block.

“It is a lot different,” said Aarav Makadia, 10 a fifth-grader who in his second year of competing is part of a team called the Predators.

But yes, it is fun, Makadia said. That was a key reason he applied for a coveted spot on a Perry Hill School team.

But it is also difficult.

Using teamwork, motivation and LEGO Mindstorms technology, the Predators programmed a pint-size autonomous robot to perform a series of tasks. How well the team worked together to address problems added to their score.

The Perry Hill Predators placed first among 48 teams from around the state. Right behind them was PerSIStance, a team of seventh- and eighth-graders from Shelton Intermediate School. Another Shelton team, Brainiacs, receive a Judges award and another, called Techniq, received an Innovative Solution award.

Other area teams participating in the state competition came from Milford, Danbury, Wilton, Woodbridge, Stamford and Trumbull.

Yes, there was a homefield advantage — the state competition was in the Shelton High School gym, where an enthusiastic crowd roared from the bleachers — but Michele Piccolo, head coach of Shelton’s LEGO League teams, chalks their success up to something more.

“I think we have a history,” said Piccolo, who is a library media specialist at Shelton High. “We just celebrated 20 years of robotics at high school level.”

The First LEGO League in Shelton was started eight years ago as a feeder program. The international FLL was founded in 1998 to encourage excitement in science, technology, engineering and math fields. It attracts some 320,000 participants in 98 countries. About 60 teams teams will be in Detroit for the World Festival, April 24-27.

Designing and programming a LEGO robot is different from working on typical high school robots, said Piccolo, but the work ethic and problem-solving skills required are similar.

Combine that with a growing stable of mentors and corporate sponsors like Sikorsky, and robotics has become as synonymous to Shelton Public Schools as football is to Ansonia or “We The People” constitutional debate teams are to Trumbull.

“This is a team that extolls the virtues of the FIRST program,” said Carol Scully, Connecticut director of New England First which is based in Bloomfield. “They are a high-powered team that does very well in competition and often qualifies for worlds.”

The robotics trophies and banners are starting to mount.

Teamwork

Between Perry Hill School, Shelton’s upper elementary school, and Shelton Intermediate School for seventh- and eighth-graders, Shelton has five LEGO teams of up to 10 members each. Competition to get in is tough.

When Siddharth Jain, now 16 and a high school junior, tried out for a team in the fifth grade, he said, he wasn’t sure he would make it.

“A huge number apply,” said Jain, who is now a member of the high school robotics team and mentor to the intermediate school’s PerSIStance LEGO team.

He sees his younger self in many of his proteges.

“You grow so much,” Jain said.

“They all work super hard,” said Piccolo, who regularly has to persuade teams who want to take “one more run” that it is time to leave after a practice session in the Shelton High manufacturing labs.

With the state competition is behind them, teams members say they must step up their game before Detroit. Judging will be harsher.

“Our robot will be completely different,” said Krishiv Patel, 10, a fifth-grader on the Predators.

Other members of Predators include fifth-graders Danny Hilser, Matthew Quevedo and Jackson Guerra, along with sixth-graders Shreya Yadav and Finn Riddle.

Yadav, 11, said she joined to follow in the footsteps of an older sister.

“It was intriguing to me; There are many parts,” she said, referring to roles as well as all the gears, wires, motors and sensors.

During competition, team members each perform all tasks rather than specializing. They take turns driving the vehicle, working the pit crew, making quick adjustments to programming.

Yadav and others say they need to hone their driving skills before Detroit, find better ways to build attachments, code their robots to follow color commands and improve their speed.

In the next practice room, members of PerSIStance were mapping out a similar game plan.

“We have a good idea,” said Benjamin DeMartino, an eighth-grade member of the team.

The theme of the 2019 competition is creating a solution for a NASA problem — in honor of the 50th anniversary of first moon landing. Last year the task involved water — creating something related to to address hydrodynamics.

Other members of PerSIStance include seventh-graders Luke Sanborn and Kate McPadden, along with eighth-graders Gabriel Zamani, Mary Pavliouk, Sanjana Jain and Amanda Billingslea.

As high schoolers, most say they hope to join the Gaelhawks Robotics team where there is also a reputation to uphold. That team attended FIRST World Championships in 2016 and 2017.The high school season starts in January. Head adviser is John Niski, who is also district director of athletics and physical education.

AP RADIO
Update hourly