By Craig Campbell, News Staff
Who knew those little Lego blocks could do so much?
The First Lego League international competition is about much more than playing with multi-coloured building toys. And a group of students at Canadian Martyrs’ Catholic Elementary School in west Hamilton are showing how far they can take this opportunity.
The extra-curricular program includes several aspects, beginning with the group of eight kids between 12 and 14 years old constructing elements for a mission board out of the Lego kits, including a robot.
The group then attempts to complete a list of tasks – or missions – using the robot they’ve built and programmed. At a regional competition, which took place last weekend, they matched up against other schools to see how many of the missions they get their robot to complete. Canadian Martyrs qualified for the provincial competition on Jan. 13. But that’s only the start.
Each year, First Lego League operates under a different theme. This time – Canadian Martyrs’ first in the program – the theme is challenges faced by seniors.
The missions performed by the robot all relate to tasks seniors must tackle on a regular basis, and the group also had to identify and learn about another problem or challenge seniors face, then create a solution to the problem.
The group told their teacher supervisor Christine Scheben they needed to talk to an expert. Scheben took a largely hands-off approach to the school club, encouraging the kids to use teamwork to solve each challenge.
She was learning about the robot technology right along with them.
But in the request for support, she had a connection that could help. Her cousin, Dr. Brian Msisiazek, is chief of geriatics at Hamilton Health Sciences and an associate professor at McMaster University. Scheben invited him to the Main Street West school to talk to the club.
Msisiazek didn’t just bring in a presentation. Each student came up with their own question to ask, and they plied the expert for information on seniors and their challenges. That session brought them to a conclusion.
“We decided to have a website. We figured they might need help using technology,” one of the students said. “We wanted to focus on something that could be there for them at all times.”
With Msisiazek’s expertise, the team learned seniors often have to deal with isolation and loneliness.
Improving their connectivity and communication through an interactive website, seniors could learn to communicate more easily with family and friends, and try new things.
When he dropped by the school two weeks ago to watch the students demonstrate their robot, and preview their website, Msisiazek was more than impressed.
“I’m just blown away,” he said. “I didn’t learn any of this until I was in Grade 12 and they’re doing it in Grade 7. It’s amazing.”
He said he’s working at St. Peter’s Hospital to build a learning laboratory on healthy aging for seniors, and the students are already doing the same thing.
“I see it being done in an elementary school. They’re thinking along the same lines.”
Msisizek said the students’ website – Seniors Spot – will help exercise seniors’ minds by offering new detailed tasks to perform and improve their ability to communicate — skills that help all people live better.
“We know that people who communicate with each other do better overall,” he said. “People who isolate themselves don’t do as well.”
The whole idea is to encourage teamwork and problem solving. Both Misiaszek and Scheben see both happening in this group.
“You’ll go a lot further, higher and farther because you have this head start,” Dr. Misiaszek told the students.
In addition to all the educational aspects of the First Lego League program, it creates new connections within the community. Misiaszek suggested other McMaster professors and researchers would likely have an interest in working with the school’s team on future competition themes.
Scheben said the First Lego League has already introduced the group to issues and challenges they didn’t even know existed, and shown them how to work with others to develop tangible solutions.
“It’s totally cool,” Scheben said, when asked what attracted her to the First Lego League program. “We have a lot of sports teams, and a lot of service groups at this school, but there isn’t a lot that combines all those elements of teamwork and community outreach. They communicate and work together to solve problems.”
She said that won’t be allowed to end with the regional competition in Waterloo. The students will continue to operate, update and expand the website they created for seniors. They will also work on all the robotic challenges they haven’t completed yet.
“They’re going to get a plethora of information just being at the competition. We’re not going to be done,” Scheben said.