Ness fourth-graders take robotics prize

December 20, 2018

The fledgling fourth-grade robotics team from Ness Elementary in the West Valley School District won first place in strategy and innovation at a recent First Robotics competition.

The team competed in the First Lego League for students in grades four through eight, beating out more experienced teams of eighth-graders to win its prize.

“We were all rookies, including myself,” said coach Julie Day. “I’m very proud and impressed with what they did.”

What makes it more unusual is that Ness Elementary doesn’t technically have a robotics team. All fourth-graders are given the chance to build “experience robots” as part of the curriculum, and 14 were picked as part of two teams to attend the competition, Day said.

The robotics work started the second week of school.

“Our time was very limited,” she said.

Not only were other teams more experienced, but many of them were better funded, Day said. The program at Ness Elementary has no dedicated funding.

“A lot of them are after-school programs with a lot of money,” she said. “We used hand-me-down parts and robots.”

During the competition, a large board was set up for the robots to work on. “They have to go onto a board and do a series of missions,” said student Audrey Grothe.

One of those tasks was crossing a track, something their robot had trouble doing consistently. “Sometimes it went over and sometimes it didn’t,” said student Ethan Campos.

The robots, which the students named Ness and Nessie, also had to push or lift items with their arms.

Nessie arrived at the competition programmed to complete two of the four tasks, but by the end of the day the students had added enough programming to complete all four tasks, Day said.

“It teaches them perseverance,” Day said. “The kids can program better than I can. It’s crazy how much they advanced.”

As the competition went on, students got more practiced and things got smoother, said student Emma Van Weerdhuizen.

“It was scary at first,” she said.

Grothe said she liked that everyone had to work together during the competition.

“This competition is full of teamwork,” she said. “It was hard, but it was really fun.”

The students did the work entirely on their own, Day said. She would drop the students off at the door of the room, and they would make their presentation or run their robot through its paces in front of the judges by themselves.

“It’s a very kid-driven, student-driven program,” she said. “The success has nothing to do with me. The success has to do totally with these kids.”

Day said the robotics team will return next year, but she plans to use this year’s fourth-graders as mentors to the new fourth-graders and make it a combined team of fourth- and fifth-graders. She also wants to do some fundraising so the students can get better equipment.

She teaches fourth-grade math and science and said she is committed to offering students STEM opportunities.

“Math is my specialty,” she said. “It’s my goal to get them to realize how fun math is.”

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