Have you ever wondered what could capture a kid’s interest in something other than the latest electronic game? Look no further than St. John’s School in Old Saybrook! Students from the Middle school level have happily involved themselves in an after school program called the Robotic’s Club. The concept of the program comes from First Lego League. This was an idea fostered by the two founders, Dean Kamen of First, and Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen of the Lego group, to encourage young minds to pursue solutions to a stated problem through science and technology. What makes the program unusual is the focus on “core values”. The values espoused by FLL encompass being a team first, guided by a coach and mentors. The team believes discovery is a more important goal then winning, therefore the kids conduct themselves in a spirit of friendly competition. They are also expected to exhibit “Gracious Professionalism” and “Coopertition,” trademarks of the First Group. Students are encouraged to share their findings and help other teams in their quest for solutions.
The Theme picked for this year’s competition was “Animal Allies”. St. John had two teams that entered, The Flying Dolphins and The Owl Predators. Each team was expected to identify a problem in the way animals interacted with humans and find a way to improve that relationship. The team then sets out to design a solution through research and science. They share their findings by way of a presentation to the FLL judges. Both teams also have to compete in the robot game. All the teams are presented with a similar Lego robot that they may enhance in different ways. The robots must then perform a series of maneuvers that involve animals and humans. These include Lego service dogs who must stop before crossing the street, Lego milking cows that must be connected to milk machine correctly and loading a Lego shark tank onto transport. All the teams compete on the same game field to complete these tasks.
The next part of the project was to identify a problem that dolphins and whales had in their interaction with humans. The Flying Dolphin team discovered that the increase in the noise levels in the oceans was adversely affecting these animals. Dolphins and whales use sound in many ways that enhance their lives under the sea. They find their food sources, find mates, avoid predators and navigate all through their sound detection. As the oceans become noisier, the animals become confused and disoriented. The team found evidence that this can cause them to beach themselves which can lead to their deaths. The solution was to find a way to lessen or mask the noises from passing ships. The students did a lot of research which included field trips to interview respected scientists studying the problem. With their coach and mentor, Mike Mathiason, the team interviewed Dr. Christopher Clark, Director of Bioacoustics from Cornell University. With a nod to modern technology, the team actually skyped the interview with Dr. Clark. Their research also included speaking with Mary Ellen Mateleska, Director of Education and Conservation at the Mystic Aquarium and Carl Wohlmuth, Project Engineer of Virginia Class Submarines and parent to one of the team. Parents of the students are a huge asset in this program. Gwen Pond, mother of another team member has mentored the team right from the beginning. Mike Mathiason has been associated with the Robotics Club at St. John’s School since his son was a student there. The Flying Dolphins team consists of Adam Carol( 8th grade), Stephen Wolhmuth (7th grade), Jack Flynn (6th grade), and Peter Pond (5th grade). After taking in all the information provided by many experts, the students brainstormed some solutions. The main idea was to “quiet” the noise of the ships by rubber mounts on the hull to damper the sounds. Another idea was to use electric motors as they produce much less noise. They also proposed making a special propeller which reduces cavitation. Cavitation is a change in pressure of the water moving over the propeller which causes vaporizing bubbles to explode making a loud noise. The objective is to make “silent ships” so the dolphins and whales can co-exist with human activity.
The last part of the challenge asks the teams to present their findings creatively through a presentation of their own design. The students decided to hold a “Press Conference” to announce their discoveries. Three of the boys were the scientists and one student was the journalist. It was a clever way to present scientific data in an entertaining format.
What is truly amazing about this program is that it doesn’t end with the official competition. The students at St. John School were motivated to continue their work in their local community. Just recently, these kids presented their program at the Acton Library as a way to bring awareness to this important issue. There is a new movie called “Sonic Sea” which addresses the problem of noise levels in our oceans. The students worked to have this movie sponsored by presenting their skit and findings to the Acton Library. The Friends of Acton agreed with them! The”Sonic Sea” will be shown on February 25th from 3:00p.m. to 5:00 p.m. at the Acton Library in Old Saybrook. Isn’t it great to see our local kids engaged in activities that encourage their interest in science and technology? The Robotics Club of St. John School has opened the door for these students to be critical thinkers and better citizens right here in Old Saybrook.