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Fall River teacher creates new hands-on LEGO® robotics challenge for students due to pandemic

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FALL RIVER – Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, middle school students across the state would participate in the FIRST® LEGO® League robotics challenges around this time of year. Social distancing and other safety considerations have altered these plans for the Catholic schools in the Diocese of Fall River. In response, Ellen Russell, Physics, Engineering and Mathematics teacher at Bishop Connolly High School, has stepped in to create a Diocesan challenge between Catholic middle school students in order to provide a hands-on robotics experience to students in grades 5 – 8.

According to Mrs. Russell, she and three Bishop Connolly physics students (all female) have weekly Zoom meetings with school teams on Thursday afternoons. The goal for each school’s team is to build a robot that will be challenged with completing 13 missions utilizing the City Shaper playing field and robotics kits. City Shaper was created by the FIRST® LEGO® League and was their National challenge in 2019-20. Each mission involves a task that requires specific design and programming features in order to be accomplished. Currently, middle school students from Holy Name, Espirito Santo, Saint Michael’s and Saint Mary’s Schools are learning how to build a simple robot and then program it to move forward, backwards and side to side. When they start to plan missions, they will need to build functional robot attachments and program their robots to lift LEGO® houses, go up a ramp, release a swing, and lift a box with a crane.

“Robotics is a fun way for middle school students to begin to think critically and analyze how to solve problems,” says Ellen Russell. “While it is unfortunate that the normal league competitions are on hold, our middle school students are so excited to continue to hone their skills and learn new ways to problem solve. Kids these ages love the hands-on experience and we are so blessed to be able to offer this activity to students in our Catholic elementary schools. We hope to have an in-person competition at Bishop Connolly in the late spring as the facilities are more than able to accommodate social distancing.”

Greta Costello, Maya Pontes, and Rachel Dias are the Bishop Connolly juniors who are serving as mentors for the program. Costello comments, “It has been so much fun working with these kids. They are so enthusiastic about developing the programs, robot parts, as well as strategies for getting as many points as possible. The more tasks, or missions, that each school’s robot completes, the more points they earn. Students at this age are so creative in their thinking and I have enjoyed mentoring them every step of the way. We are learning as much as they are!”

Ellen Russell is also planning a spring Science Olympiad for students in grades 1 – 4 where there are two events for each grade level and two students per grade compete. Ellen indicates that these are such formative years for students to gain the love of science and to not be intimidated by the content or methods. As she works with the younger students, Ellen ensures that the activities are age appropriate to delight, inspire, and engage elementary school children with the love of science and discovery.

This year’s Science Olympiad focuses on grade level curricula as well as science process skills. First graders will practice observation and classification in an event called “Monster Match”. They will also make observations and measurements of relative mass in an event called “A-Weigh We Go”. In “Grasp a Graph”, second graders will practice communication and data interpretation. In “Science Detectives”, they will be challenged with testing the properties of various materials to determine which is best suited for an intended purpose. Third graders will participate in “Making and Using a Key” and will build a car propelled only by magnets in an event called “Ready, Set, Go!” In fourth grade, students will hone their procedural writing skills in an event called “Write It/Do It”. They will also demonstrate their knowledge of electric circuits by wiring a candy safe that signals when someone is attempting to steal their precious candy supply. Later in the school year, Bishop Connolly will be hosting an event for teams of eight students representing each of the participating diocesan elementary schools.

Kathy St. Laurent, Principal of Bishop Connolly High School, adds, “We are so fortunate to have educators like Ellen Russell leading our STEM initiative. Our students are receiving a state of the art education in science, engineering and computer technology courses. They are well prepared for college and career in a rapidly growing and competitive field.”

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