Story by Reagan Scott
WESTON (SNR) – Last year, the Saunders County Catholic Schools were granted money from the Flavin Fund in order to begin a robotics club for students in the grades 5-8, and increase S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education at St. John Nepomucene Elementary in Weston and St. Wenceslaus Elementary in Wahoo.
The Flavin Fund, a grant established as a part of the Joy of the Gospel Campaign, is distributed to schools in the diocese that apply for money in order to begin new programs or projects for students.
With the money they received from the grant, the Saunders County Catholic Schools were able to form the Calvary Robotics Club.
The club, comprised of 22 students, is only in its inaugural year, but has already seen great success. Three of the four teams in the club were invited to go to the VEX regional competition Feb. 17-18 and one of those teams, made up of fifth- and sixth-graders, got second place.
“That was quite a success for them,” Marv Wiese, club director of Calvary Robotics, said.
From April 6-8, one of the seventh- and eighth-grade teams will compete at the VEX National Competition in Council Bluffs, Iowa, an accomplishment that Wiese is very proud of.
The students won the bid to attend the national competition after placing first as part of an alliance at their second tournament in Council Bluffs in early February. What was exciting about the win was the fact that the competition was for both middle and high school students.
At the national competition, the team will be competing against students from across the U.S., and some from Shanghai, China.
At competitions, students must tell a panel of judges what their robots do, according to Wiese. For each match, students will be assigned partners and will have to tell them what their robot does so that they can work together. After that, the teams will make alliances with other teams in order to advance in the competition.
“There’s a little bit of business and marketing going on,” Wiese said.
By talking to judges, the students are also learning interview skills that Wiese believes are important to learn at an early age. Another important skill that the students are learning is teamwork.
“This is a great program for these kids to bond and be teammates with other students they might not normally be teammates with,” Wiese said.
The club meets once or twice every week in order to work on their robots and prepare for tournaments. At the beginning of the year, the coaches talked through the basics of robotics before getting the parts to build the robots.
“The students design and build the entire robot as a team,” Wiese said. “We get the wiring, bearings, gears and wheels and they put it all together.”
Wiese is also assisted by other parent or team coaches and will have six to eight at every meeting.
“Some parents have technology or computer programming experience, and some might not have any. We have a wide variety of parents with different backgrounds,” Wiese said.
“The parents have been very supportive and very engaged. They are willing to do whatever it takes to make it work.”
The parents were also very influential in raising funds for the club through more grants and private funds. The club has also been sponsored with the help of 3M.
“A robotics club is a lot more expensive than say, a basketball club,” said Eva Fujan, the strategic plan coordinator for Bishop Neumann High School in Wahoo and the supporting grade schools.
The costs for each team can range from $3,000 to $3,500 every year. These costs help to pay for parts for the robots, the software needed to program them, and tournament fees.
The money from the Flavin Fund was also instrumental in implementing a S.T.E.M. curriculum in St. Wenceslaus and St. John elementary schools for kindergarten through fifth-graders.
The curriculum involves coding and hands-on activities that allow students to engage with the lessons they are learning, such as calculating the battery life that their robot might have and building circuits.
“We’re really excited to get this going,” Fujan said. “These are lessons that are applicable to life and with robotics it’s fun, the students get so engaged.”
Through S.T.E.M. education and the Calvary Robotics Club, students are learning important lessons that Wiese believes will prove very useful in the future.
“I believe that the future is electronic, so there’s a lot of application that students are learning,” Wiese said.
Moving forward, the goal is to carry these S.T.E.M. activities into Bishop Neumann High School with the graduating eighth-graders, so that all students in Saunders Catholic Schools will be able to enjoy opportunities that can better prepare them for the future.