St. John students show what they’re made of in LEGO™ competition

NORTH CHARLESTON — Each year, many South Carolina students spend months building robots and learning to maneuver them over a course in preparation for the annual For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) LEGO™ League competition.

This year a St. John Catholic School team won second place out of 140 teams for the coveted Director’s Award, the most prestigious award at the event.

FIRST is “a multinational non-profit organization that aspires to transform culture, making science, math, engineering and technology as cool for kids as sports are today,” according to its Web site. It was founded by Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway Human Transporter, and “introduces children around the world to the fun and experience of solving real-world problems by applying math, science and technology.”

The competition is for students ages 9-14. St. John has competed in the state contest for five years under the guidance of math and science teacher “K.C.” Kramp and her husband Steve, an engineer. This year’s competition was held Jan. 14 at the Columbia Metro Center.

“I think it’s great to make science and technology fun for the kids,” Steve said. “It gives the kids a different experience and they have the opportunity to compete in a way that’s very individual yet very team-oriented.”

The St. John FIRST Knights began designing their robot out of the required LEGO™ materials in September after receiving the design criteria from the company. This year’s theme was “Ocean Odyssey,” a look at the importance of the earth’s oceans and how they can be protected.

“Every year we are required to design a different robot that is capable of maneuvering through an obstacle course independent of us,” K.C. said. “This year we built several robots at the beginning and then chose to use the one that we felt would work best. The robot runs off of a computer program.”

Once the robot is designed it must maneuver the course in two and a half minutes, a feat that Steve said isn’t always easy. He said a scrimmage at Trident Tech in December was an eye-opening experience for the group.

“It’s good for the kids to see that we aren’t where we need to be,” he said. “Usually they discover that we are farther behind than they realized. They learn that procrastination isn’t good.”

Once competition day rolls around, the students are judged on their robot’s performance, on team spirit, and a required research project. The Director’s Award recognizes a team’s sportsmanship, teamwork and problem-solving skills, and its ability to inspire and motivate others.

This year, the students tied mylar balloons shaped like fish to their belts.

“We were in the metro center with 1,000 kids, but we never got lost,” she said. “Just look around and you were sure to see a fish balloon walking around somewhere.”

Katherine Fulcher found this year’s competition bittersweet. A three-year veteran of the team, she feels proud of the win, but is sad that her run has come to an end as an eighth-grader.

“Being on this team has taught me that science and technology is a lot more fun than I thought it would be,” she said. “I am just sad I can’t compete anymore.”

Taylor Meadows, also an eighth grader, was not fazed by the pressure of manning the robot during the competition.

“I knew that I was doing a job that was pretty important,” he said. “But if I learned anything it was to just laugh at myself. If I messed up I would do just that — laugh. If I did a good job I would laugh. I wasn’t nervous at all.”

Steve said he felt that the greatest victory was in the team spirit that the students fostered.

“I have never seen a team that cared for each other the way this team did,” Steve said.

He attributes a great deal of their success to the support of the St. John School principal.

“Carol Anne White gets the whole school involved by praying for the team and getting the whole school excited,” he said. “Also, for the last three of four years, she has attended the competition with the team.”

K.C. and Steve both agreed that more adult mentors would be welcome.

“This year we had enough interest for two teams,” said K.C. “but we didn’t have anyone else to coach the second team. We are hoping to find more people willing to help out.”