By Jessie Hazard for Island Eye News
Photos by Kristen Virgilio
When the students on Tandy Moye’s inaugural First Lego League team came together this year, they knew they had to think big. Since October, the team of 11 fourth and fifth graders at Sullivan’s Island Elementary School have worked with admirable zeal to prepare for a Charleston County schools competition; where they were up against middle school teams. With Moye serving only as a guide, the group of SAIL students, part of the CCSD gifted and talented program, had to use imaginative thinking and teamwork to come up with a real-world solution to the trash epidemic. They also had to design and program a robot using Lego Mindstorms technology, then compete using the autonomous robot to score points on a themed playing field.
First Lego League is a global initiative, boasting participants in 80 countries, in which teams research a real-world problem such as food safety, recycling and energy and are challenged to develop a solution.
“It all adds up to tons of fun while they learn to apply science, technology, engineering, and math concepts (STEM), plus a big dose of imagination, to solve a problem,” states the First Lego League website.
“Along their discovery journey, they develop critical thinking and team-building skills, basic STEM applications, and even presentation skills, as they must present their solutions with a dash of creativity to judges.”
The school’s team is comprised of Ryan Lynch, Ella Jancewicz, Sam Henshaw, Finn O’Neill and Prescott Schoderbek from Isle of Palms, Ariana Lane, Gray Holland, Ryder Bishop and Joey Virgillio from Sullivan’s Island and Sam Dudley and Alan Muthard from Mount Pleasant.
As they considered the trash problem, their collective focus naturally, for students who go to school on an island, shifted to the way pollution affects our waterways. The students were initially interested in pollutant plastics like bottles and bags, but when a marine biologist came to speak to them, they learned of a lesser-known but very menacing source of pollution—microbeads.
Microbeads are tiny plastic spheres, less than five millimeters, which are widely used in cosmetics as exfoliating agents and personal care products such as toothpaste and shower gels. When they wash down the drain, wastewater treatment facilities aren’t equipped to catch such tiny particles, so they end up in rivers, lakes, and oceans. Microbeads act like sponges, sucking up persistent organic pollutants (long-lasting toxic chemicals like pesticides and motor oil) and other industrial chemicals. A single microbead can be up to a million times more toxic than the water around it.
They also look like tasty kibbles to fish, who gobble them up, thus carrying the toxins further to other waterways and polluting both their spawn and the food chain. The fish we eat?
Yep, it can contain some of these toxins too. Scarily, fish species that humans harvest for food have been known to eat microplastic particles at an alarming rate, and the toxins transfer to the fish tissue. Yum.
When the students’ eyes were opened, they decided to come up with a solution to catch all those pesky little suckers before they had a chance to hit the water. The team created a drain attachment made of plankton netting (a material so well-knit that biologists use it to extract tiny organisms from water) that fits in a sink and stops the beads.
The students wouldn’t have known it back in October when they began planning, but the invention couldn’t be timelier.
At the end of 2015, President Obama signed a bipartisan bill that prohibits selling and distributing products containing microbeads, intended to protect the nation’s waterways. Of course, there are still products in circulation in the US that haven’t been discarded yet, and other nations are still dealing with the microbead problem. “If everyone had what these kids invented, think of the possibilities,” Moye said.
In the robotics division of the challenge, the students found the small stuff fascinating too.
“They really enjoyed learning the code and programming the robot,” Moye said. The team named the robot Sully after a stuffed turtle of Moye’s, who was allowed to ride atop the robot as a makeshift mascot.
The regional qualifiers for the First Lego League were held at the end of January at Fort Johnson Middle School in James Island.
Though robot Sully wasn’t a winner because it missed a fewcues during its final competitive run, the team did take first place out of 24 teams in the Project Division for their micro bead trapping invention. They didn’t make it to State, but a run so successful with a team so young shows that the students show tremendous promise. This was the first time the school had engaged in this competition. It’s safe to say that, as the students grow older and continue working together, those other teams better watch out.
Aside from robots and projects, there’s a third facet to this competition: the kids must practice the program’s signature Core Values: Teamwork, sportsmanship, and good, clean fun are tenets the league operates on. Each child on Moye’s team had to be interviewed separately by a panel of judges, who asked them what they learned.
One child said he discovered the value of patience in working in a group. Another noted that the team setting made him better at sports. All of the students said that they realized really great results come from working together.
As the First Lego League commandment states, “What we discover is more important than what we win.” That’s true, but winning’s awfully nice too, so keep an eye out for this team in future competitions. Sully may just kick some serious butt.