Middle Schoolers Rack Up Robotics Titles

Following the path blazed by Staples High, Westport’s  middle schools’ robotics team snagged 2 first-place medals at last weekend’s First Lego League state championship, held at Central Connecticut State University. They also picked up cash, from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

The boys — yes, unfortunately, they’re all male — topped nearly 200 teams to win both the Robotics Performance and Robotics Programming categories.

It’s an impressive accomplishment for 12- and 13-year-olds. The event is technically difficult, and highly competitive. They worked for months after school, researching, designing and programming their robots. (They also have many other activities — 7 of the 9, for example, play soccer.)

The winning robot.

The winning robot.

What makes the gold medals even more impressive is that their coaches — Steve Diorio and Mike Durkin — know absolutely nothing about robotics or programming. The boys teach themselves, by reading and watching YouTube videos. The adults basically say, “Way to go, guys.”

There’s one more intriguing element to this story. Despite Westport’s now-global reputation in high school robotics — Staples’ team has won a world championship — there is no high school robotics course. There’s no corporate sponsorship of the club (which itself does not even have formal status).

The Middle School Robotics Club — now in its 2nd year — marks the first formal school system support of the activity.

The 1st-place team is called the Mechanical Masterminds. Members include Coleytown 7th graders Nick Ambrose, Rob Diorio, Nicholas Durkin, John McNab, Daniel Westphal, Josh Zhang and Andy Zhang, and Coleytown 7th grader Justin Schmidt and 8th grader Sunil Green.

A 2nd Westport middle school group — Team SNAP — took home the 2nd place Champions Award. They’re completely independent. Members include Coleytown students Theo Davis, Dan Kleine, Nathanael Metke, Kiran Nandagopal and Luke Sauer. The coach is Terry Sauer.

Congratulations to all the young champions. And their robots, too.

The Masterminds and SNAP robotics teams.

The Masterminds and SNAP robotics teams.

6 responses to “Middle Schoolers Rack Up Robotics Titles

  1. Congratulations to both teams! These are special groups of boys that have achieved this by self-motivation and, perhaps more importantly, very effective teamwork. ‘Looking forward to following you through your HS years….”way to go, guys”!

  2. No robotic classes in Staples. And we are debating having more STEM classes in middle school. The world is clearly chnaging and the question we must ask–are we preparing our children for it.

    Just recently a world-wide study of 15 years was quite disapoointing for the US. 15 year olds in the US lagged in math and scored in the middle, when comparing to other countries, in science. We are not only falling behind asian counties but also places like Germany and Poland. 29 countries beat the US. In science, 22 countries beat us out. And the most interesting outcome was students from high income families did not perform as well as the same type students in other countries. So this problem is not just from so called poor areas of the US.

    Amazing to see this team win considering our schools are not offering any help with classes. As I did on another website, I invite Staple graduates to join in this discussion. From what happened there, we learned the issue of not offering the classes in STEM early, or not at all, is not good. I would like our schools to create an environment of making learning STEM fun. It would be great if in middle school we let stiudents decide between chorus, band, orchestra or STEM. Not every student wants to sing–so why make it mandatory. Prepare our children for what is happening in the real world.

    I share a recent OP-ED piece by Tom Friedman in the NY Times–a well respected writer:

    “Not good. We’re now in an era in which globalization and the information technology revolution have merged to drastically shrink what was the basis of our middle class for so many years: the “high-wage, middle-skilled” job. In a less integrated and less automated world of walls, where unions held more sway, many Americans could live an average middle-class lifestyle with average skills. In today’s hyperconnected world without walls — when more Indians, Chinese, computers, robots and software can perform more average blue-collar and white-collar jobs — the only high-wage jobs are increasingly high-skill jobs. “Over the last decade, job growth in the industrialized world has almost exclusively been at the top end of the PISA skill distribution,” explained Schleicher, “while routine cognitive skills, the kinds of things that are easy to teach but also easy to digitize and outsource, have seen the steepest decline in demand.”

    Please join in this discussion–maybe we can get our school board to do more.

  3. There was a third robotics team this year from Westport, and it was coed. The MM team knew each other mainly from soccer which helped with team cohesion. The third team did well in the Regionals, but for reasons related to how the teams are scored, they didn’t get to the State level. They were beat out by all-girl squads from Greenwich Academy (the Regional hosts).

    I agree there needs to be a discussion within the STEM framework. From my perspective, the robotics technology that is emerging is at about the same stage as the micro-computer was with the introduction of the Apple 2. Projecting forward into the future, the needs are a bit murky, and it isn’t clear exactly what the right approach is, but the future of robotics has such overwhelming potential, and the technology has matured enough that amazing things seem about to happen.

    What the robotics tournaments offer, which is interesting, is a competitive team environment within a technological setting. The approach is a closer approximation to today’s competitive technological industries if compared to Math Olympiads and other similar programs. A Staples focus has been on individual performances at science fairs, and I have had the opportunity to be a judge at those for the last three years. Both approaches have their pluses and minuses. If the goal is competitive success in corporate settings, I’d have to choose the robotics model. If the goal is encouraging students to pursue scientific research careers, I’d definitely choose the science fairs.

    Let’s keep the conversation going.

  4. Kevin–it would be much better for soem of our students to get them engaged in STEM much ealrier and much more. Right now the BOE is After hours of discussion and public input over the past several weeks, voted unanimously to expand STEM, making it available one day a week in the sixth and seventh grades and two days a week in the eighth. Two days a week in the 8th grade? Yet they have to take chorus? How about making it an option in the 8th grade. Also, there are few if none at all STEM classes in high school. One student who graduated Stapeles and went into engineering stated they were behind other students when entering college as she had no prior experince. How about STEM classes in high school that are fun–pass/fail, but showing the students how engineering or math is applied. Design a house using geometry. Write an app for the smart phone. I could go on. Westport seems to be falling behiond what our children need and I am suprised we are not doing more.

  5. Nancy Hunter Wilson

    Every school needs a balance of Math/Science, and English/Language.
    Every school needs all boys and girls to become proficient at both.
    However, I’ve never heard of such a perfect school (private schools tout that they are, but I doubt it).
    Happily, teamwork always works. One kid helping another.

  6. To their credit, the administration at Staples recognizes the need for STEM and how important robotics can be in this area. Principal John Dodig and Science Department Chair Dr. AJ Scheetz held a special parent’s coffee last Friday December 6. The topic was Engineering and Robotics, and there was a large turnout of interested parents, including many current high school robot team parents.

    Dr. Scheetz is making strong efforts to support the local robotics teams. He has visited both of the high school teams in their basement workshops, and is assisting I2Robotics with hosting an upcoming robotics scrimmage at Staples in January.

    Staples started an Engineering course this year, with three sections. Dr. Scheetz described enrollment in these courses as ‘well-subscribed.’ Mr. Dodig and Dr. Scheetz want to expand the engineering offering and to eventually add robotics as a club activity. The school is extremely challenged by demands on space. The current engineering classes meet in a science classroom shared with many other classes. This limits the number and scope of the projects they can work on, as they need to store all their materials and equipment at the end of each class session.

    In the longer term, but maybe as soon as next year, the school plans to find a space to create a full time engineering lab. This space will be available both for the engineering program and for robotics.

    In the short term, the engineering program needs some new equipment. This year’s PTA technology fundraiser is dedicated to purchasing this equipment. You can help! The link below will allow you to make a tax-deductible contribution. While this equipment is designated for use by the engineering program, it would also be extremely useful for robotics teams to design and fabricate parts for robots.


    Please consider showing your support for STEM and robotics in the Westport Public Schools by contributing to this fund.

    Terry Sauer
    Coach, I2Robotics (FTC Team 6081) and Team SNAP (FLL Team 5)