Shelton middle schoolers shared their inventive handiwork with Mayor Mark Lauretti at Shelton City Hall on Wednesday, Jan. 16.

The two tech-savvy teams are the first-place “Predators,” fifth and sixth graders from Perry Hill School, and “PerSIStence,” consisting of seventh and eighth grade students at Shelton Intermediate School. The teams placed first and second, respectively, in the statewide FIRST Lego League competition, and on April 24-27, they will be in the worldwide FIRST competition at Detroit’s Cobo Center.

“I have been following FIRST since it began in Shelton,” said Lauretti, adding that he spent a day at last year’s worldwide FIRST competition in St. Louis. “There’s a real silver lining for Shelton in that we have great people from local businesses and industry working with our students and teachers on these projects. That is a match that works.”

“In Detroit, our students will be competing with students from 60 teams from all over the United States, as well as from Germany, Japan, China and other countries,” said Michele Piccolo, a library media specialist at Shelton High and head coach for five FIRST Lego League teams.

Because 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing, this year’s FIRST Lego League theme is space technology. At City Hall, sixth-grader Shreya Yadav outlined the Predators’ invention — a special headband that counteracts the dizziness common to prolonged stays in space. This results from the effect of zero gravity on a person’s vestibular system — those parts of the inner ear and brain that help control balance and eye movements.

“The headband uses lasers to help guide the user to a focal point,” said Yadav. “This will help the astronauts’ vestibular system to adapt.”

The Predators even figured out a target item price: $24.99.

The PerSIStence team developed a lightweight spacecraft built from carbon nanotubes. This material has properties that protect the spacecraft from high levels of radiation found in deep outer space. The current Space Station, by contrast, operates within the earth’s atmosphere.

Spacecraft will encounter much greater radiation levels as they proceed farther from earth, noted Mary Pavliouk, the team’s spokesperson.

“For astronauts that would have some truly nasty effects, such as horrible cancers,” said Pavliouk. “So they need to rely on their spacecraft to protect them from dangerous radiation.”

Students in FIRST Lego League focus on innovation and invention in a broad sense, whereas their high-school counterparts zero in on robotics. One characteristic the different levels do share is the multifaceted nature of the things they develop. Both levels of teams encompass multiple disciplines for problem solving.

“There are a lot of parts to both FIRST Lego League and FIRST Robotics, so these programs offer a great launching point to studying many different things,” said Suapan Makadia, a software engineer for NASDAQ who helps coach the Predators, and whose son is in another FLL team at Perry Hill, the Lego Leopards.

“This is a great age to get kids exposed to technology,” added Makadia. “We’re teaching them how to interact with their co-workers when they get to the workplace. There’s also public speaking involved in being part of these teams, which is a huge benefit.”

The worldwide competition in Detroit will also include high-school level FIRST Robotics teams. Shelton High School’s Gael Hawks team is scheduled to compete in the statewide competition on Feb. 24: Should the Hawks place among the statewide top competitors, it will join the middle schoolers in Detroit as well.

Because of the distance from Shelton to Detroit, the teams will travel by air. Piccolo, other teachers involved with FLL and FIRST Robotics, the team’s coaches and the students themselves have already embarked on an ambitious fund-raising plan. As they do, they have an important ally in Lauretti.

“This is a great thing for Shelton,” said Lauretti, “and you can count on our support.”