Learning with legos

John Paul II School LEGO robotics team thrives in first year

by Jessica Langdon

OVERLAND PARK — You can speak volumes without saying much at all.

And that’s just the way Patrick Smith leads the middle school LEGO robotics team at John Paul II School in Overland Park.

“Sometimes the less you say, the more it enables them to come up with imaginative ideas,” said Smith, who this school year introduced the idea of a robotics team to his alma mater. (The school was called Queen of the Holy Rosary when he graduated from eighth grade in 2001.)

And the pieces are clicking right into place.

He offered to finance much of this endeavor and volunteered to lead it, a responsibility he shares with Tim Hannon, a parent.

Innovation and problem-solving by young minds are what it’s all about on this FIRST LEGO League Robotics team, made up of two eight-graders and seven seventh-graders.

FIRST stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,” and it offers students a taste of the rewards and opportunities in those fields.

“They didn’t have this when I went to school here, and it’s just fun,” said Smith. “It’s tinkering around with stuff that you didn’t really get to do in the classroom too often.”

And although the team’s robot didn’t always perform consistently in this first year, it did when it counted — in front of the judges in the first tournament on Nov. 22, 2014, in Kearney, Missouri.

For that, the group earned the mechanical design award — and eligibility to participate in the regional championship at Union Station in Kansas City, Missouri, on Jan. 17.

Solving problems

The competition tested how well the team’s robot — Mr. Roboto — completed its missions, how the group worked according to core values, and how it devised a way to help people learn something better.

The team’s gradual improvement was impressive. Its score improved each round in the January competition.

Smith was pleased to see John Paul II start out as one of about 160 teams in the Kansas City area in the qualifying tournaments and perform increasingly well at the regional championship.

The students logged many afterschool hours programming angles to move the robot and fine-tuning their presentation.

“If you notice, I kind of just sit back and let them figure it out, because it’s supposed to be more of them — inquiry-based learning,” said Smith.

He learns as much from them as they do from him.

“I think that this has been really fun and exciting, and we get closer to each other as we try new things and do our best,” said Payton Nies, a seventh- grader.

For Brooke Tran, an eighth-grader and team secretary, one of the high points is “watching the robot move and doing it perfectly.”

Smith, a 2005 graduate of St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park, earned his industrial engineering degree from Kansas State University in Manhattan and works in supply chain management for Exxon Mobil.

It was while he was volunteering with a high school robotics team that he learned about the middle school program. He then mentioned it to Susie English, principal at John Paul II.

“He’s a great young man and has John Paul II’s interest at heart,” said English.

Of course, it’s a family tradition. His dad has been honored for his dedication to the school, and his mother, Michelle Smith, who died four years ago, was the school’s beloved gym teacher for years.

In fact, an endowment honors her memory through scholarships called the Brave Heart award.

Charting new waters

Smith and Hannon entered this first year with a team of nine — close to the maximum of 10 — and that has presented its challenges.

But English has enjoyed observing Smith’s transformation into a great leader.

“I’ve watched him evolve into someone the kids listen to,” said English.

“They really care how our futures turn out and how we succeed,” said Luke Lazarczyk, a seventh-grader. “They put in the effort. They really hope for us to succeed.”

Luke believes he has progressed under the adult leaders’ encouragement from having little experience to knowing a good deal about programming.

Adults help the students see different avenues toward achieving a mission when they’re set on one thing, he said.

There are many ways to participate beyond math and programming, added Payton, who enjoyed the group dynamics.

Brooke has enjoyed this team “becoming a big, friendly family.”

That’s not to say they don’t have their flaws, she pointed out.

“We get a little rambunctious and we act like middle-schoolers,” said Payton. “Patrick’s there to guide us back. . . . Sometimes it’s difficult to cope with these flaws, but we manage, and we learn how to control them each time it happens. So it kind of needs to happen so we can learn what to do better.”

Looking to the future

English sees only good stemming from this opportunity.

“It can’t do anything but help them in their high school and college classes and their adult lives,” she said.

A younger group also does LEGO work at the school.

As for the middle school team, Smith is already planning for next year.

He’d like to get high school robotics students to volunteer with the team, which he sees as a great — and different — way to serve.

About the author

Jessica Langdon

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