Ruling the world of Lego robotics

Amanda Billingslea was among the 40 Shelton students competing in the statewide robotics championship at Shelton High School on Saturday.

The Shelton Intermediate School eighth grader first joined a robotics team in the sixth grade when a friend told her how fun it was to participate in the program.

“You get to learn new things, research problems and work as a team,” said Amanda, a member of the PerSIStence team.

The high school auditorium was packed with hundreds of students and spectators from around the state for the First Lego League (FLL) 14th annual state championship. Forty-eight teams from multiple towns competed by having robots they made with Legos and programmed perform various tasks. Teams also finished projects on how to solve a problem involving human space exploration.

Four teams from Shelton qualified for the state tournament — the Brainiacs, Predators and Techniq, all consisting of fifth and sixth graders from Perry Hill Elementary, and PerSIStence, made up of seventh and eighth graders from SIS.

A robotics tournament resembles an athletic competition in many ways. The stands are filled with supporters who cheer on their teams, some even holding pom-poms and signs.

Students wear T-shirt jerseys emblazoned with their team logo, referees with striped jerseys oversee the action, announcers provide constant updates, and large video screens show close-ups of the competition.

Michele Piccolo, head coach of Shelton’s FLL program, said participants learn about a lot more than just robots.

“They are learning life skills — research, building, teamwork, friendship,” said Piccolo, a library media specialist at Shelton High.

“Shelton has a great robotics program,” she said, noting students on the FLL teams for fifth to eighth graders are being prepared to move up to the next level of robotic competition with Shelton High’s Gaelhawks robotics team.

This is the third year the state FLL championship has been held in Shelton, with the former SIStematic team winning twice in recent years.

All four Shelton teams were recognized for their performances Saturday, with the Predators winning the first place Champions Award and PerSIStence winning the second place Champions Award. Both should now compete in the FLL world festival in Detroit next spring. The Brainiacs won the Judge’s Award and Techniq received an Innovative Solutions Award.

Peyman Zamani, a mentor for PerSIStence, became involved in FLL when his oldest son joined a robotics team nine years ago. “I had no idea what it was,” he said, noting he’s now working with his third son, Gabriel, in the program.

“Every year it gets better and more kids join,” said Zamani, who runs an e-commerce tech company in Shelton. “I used to know the answers but now the kids know more than me. It’s been fascinating and inspiring.”

Students dedicate lot of hours to practices and competitions. Many said they are interested in pursuing a career in a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) field when older.  PerSIStence member Ben DeMartino said he hopes to someday work at NASA as an astrochemist. He enjoyed playing with Legos growing up and now likes the camaraderie of being on a robotics team.

“We all know each other really well,” the eighth grader said.

Fellow team member Kate McPadden said she loves being part of a group “that’s so enthusiastic.” Kate, a seventh grader, was selected to sing the National Anthem at the start of the tournament.

Her father, Ed McPadden, said robotics has been a great experience for his daughter. “It’s given her persistence and tenacity in pursuit of the team’s goals,” he said.

Pallavi Dalvi, who works in IT at the Subway Restaurant corporate office and mentors the Techniq team, said participating students must solve real-world problems like she and her colleagues in their careers. “It’s so good for their confidence,” she said.

Dalvi noted Techniq, for their outer space challenge, came up with a way for people to clean clothes with vinegar and a freezing process while living in space. “We tested dirty socks and it works,” she said. “It kills the bacteria.”

Siddharth Jain was on the team that won the state championship when in the sixth grade at Perry Hill. He now mentors PerSIStence and is a junior at Shelton High, where he’s on the Gaelhawks robotics team.

“They grow up so much as individuals on the team,” Jain said of FLL competitors. “Some are shy at first and become more vocal. For them, this isn’t a chore — they love doing it.”

PerSIStence member Luke Sanborn said he thrives on being part of a close-knit group. “We work as a team to overcome challenges,” Luke said.