First Lego League Junior team of six from New Paltz showcase their robotics project

The Lego League Junior team from New Paltz (L-R): Zachary Martin, James D’Amour, Adam Looft, Nathaniel Johnson, Lukas Kallio and Frankie Benevento. (photo by Rochelle Kelvin)

What do you get when you combine the love kids have for building with Lego bricks and a team-oriented organization that teaches STEM skills — science, technology, engineering and math — in an atmosphere of integrity and sensitivity? The “First Lego League Junior” program for kids ages kindergarten through fourth grade is a partnership between the Lego company and the nonprofit “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,” or FIRST. The 501(c)(3) was founded in 1989 to inspire young people to embody “gracious professionalism” while pursuing education and career opportunities in science and technology, “competing like crazy, but treating one another with respect and kindness in the process.”

The international program has a Hudson Valley chapter, with New Paltz represented by the “Zookinots19” team. Three of the six members are eight years old — Adam Looft, Zachary Martin and Frankie Benevento — and three are age nine: James D’Amour, Thanny Johnson and Lukas Kallio. While many of the teams in the First Lego League Junior program are affiliated with schools or scouting organizations, these boys are not.

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“We’re just a group of six families that came together independently to provide this experience to our kids,” says Rochelle Kelvin — Adam’s mom — who serves as the coach for the team. Any group of six kids — or as few as two — can register with the program and participate. Christina Benevento, another mom, assisted with the team.

The “season” for First Lego League Junior basically runs from September through the end of January. The Zookinots19 met once a week after school. The boys all attend either Duzine or Lenape elementary school. Through team-building exercises, research and applied science and technology learning, the boys built a Lego model with robotic parts in response to the annual challenge topic. This year it was “Creature Craze,” delving into any aspect of the animal kingdom the kids wished to explore.

At each meeting, Kelvin explains, “the team learned about engineering, programming and team-building. They researched honeybees, and chose to study kinkajous, which like honeybees, are known for pollinating flowers. They designed and built a Lego model of a tropical forest in Central America, with an explorer observing bees and kinkajous in their habitat. There are two motorized parts: the explorer that stands on a hill and rotates while looking through his binoculars, and a kinkajou that hangs by its tail from a tree, using a pulley to move up and down so it can drink nectar from a flower. Both moving parts were programmed by the team using Lego WeDo 2.0 software.”

The program, observes Kelvin, “takes the kids’ obsession with Legos to another level.”

The team brought their Lego model and accompanying poster explaining their process to a First Lego League Junior exposition held Saturday, January 21 at LaGrangeville Middle School.

The students presented their model to a team of “listeners,” says Kelvin, engineering students from local colleges who asked the kids off-the-cuff questions about their process and what they learned. The Zookinots19 also had prepared remarks as one of 13 junior teams to make a presentation to the panel. “It was a great opportunity for the kids to practice speaking in public, in front of about 30 people,” says Kelvin. “And they had fun. Part of the core values of the program is that the kids do the work — not the parents — and the kids have fun.”

For the kids in grades K-4 who make up the junior division of First Lego League, it’s strictly about showcasing their hard work at the exposition and meeting other kids who share their interest in science and technology. Competition in the First Lego League begins with the fifth-to-eighth-grade division.

In their presentation to the panel, Adam Looft, 8, said that his favorite part of working on the Creature Craze challenge was being with his friends, working on simple machines together. “It was fun. One thing I learned is that kinkajous drink nectar. That is interesting because they are monkey-like, and monkeys don’t drink nectar.”

Zachary Martin, 8, enjoyed working with Legos in general, he said. “I learned lots of things with my team, like kinkajous exist and frogs actually eat bees.” Frankie Benevento, also age 8, said his favorite part of working on the project was learning that bees “do the waggle dance.” [Buzz pollination, we can assume.] Benevento said he also enjoyed learning that kinkajous are nocturnal. “That is really cool because that means that they are awake at night.”

James D’Amour, 9, is into building with Legos, so he most enjoyed building the model. But he enjoyed the research aspects, too, he said. “One thing I learned is that kinkajous have prehensile tails. That means it can hang from its tail.”

Thanny Johnson, 9, said “One thing I learned is that kinkajous live in South America and Central America.” He liked making the banana tree for the team’s model. And Lukas Kallio, 9, said he was “really surprised by how my teammates made really unique trees for our model.” He appreciated learning about how the kinkajous contribute to pollination, and his favorite part, he said, was “building with my friends and getting to work together.”

The First Lego League Junior teams were required to have one moving part in their models, but the Zookinots19 chose to have two, Kelvin said. The other three teams from the Hudson Valley that presented along with them at the exposition didn’t get the information in time that they were meant to have a moving part in their project, she adds, so when they saw the New Paltz team’s effort with two robotic elements, “there was an audible gasp in the room.”

The team members were “jubilant” afterward, she says. “They were just ‘over the moon.’ A lot of parents and other participants came up to them and congratulated them on doing such a great job. They got a lot of positive feedback and reinforcement, and they were really proud of their accomplishments. It was really challenging! And they did it themselves. Our team met more times than we needed to, with extra time on field trips, doing book research and watching videos, and they worked hard. We had a check-off list where we diligently checked off each requirement. These kids are awesome.”

Kelvin says the adults in the program are good about keeping everything age-appropriate and kid-driven. “There’s no pressure on the kids except to be their best selves, whatever that is. There was a group of second grade girls at the exposition who studied butterflies, and their project was every bit as wonderful as ours. It’s meant to be an educational and creative process; I really commend the Lego League for including all the components in the program about team-building and emotional development. Over the course of this program, we watched them grow as people as they rose to the occasion.”

Several members of the Zookinots19 were participating in the First Lego League Junior program for the second season. At present, the team is the only one registered in New Paltz. At six members already, they’re maxed out in terms of adding new kids to their group, but anyone willing to put in the work can register their own team, says Kelvin. “That would be terrific. And maybe the school system will get interested and want to sponsor.”

The other three teams in the Hudson Valley chapter are sponsored by schools, she adds. “We were just a group of friends who knew each other. But LEGO has a team meeting guide they send out to each team that registers, with 12 different lesson plans that build upon one another. Anyone motivated can do it.”

According to the First Lego League Junior program, there are currently more than 68,000 participants on 11,500 teams in 41 countries.

As the kids age out of the junior division, the older First Lego League teams are generally run by someone who teaches technology in the schools or has knowledge of robotics, Kelvin says. There is a First Tech Challenge for middle and high schoolers, in which they build and program a robot to play a floor game against other teams, and a head-to-head robotics competition for grades 9-12.

More information is available at JuniorFirstLegoLeague.org and firstinspires.org

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