FORTVILLE — Ten-year-old Micha Gaston gripped a handheld remote, his eyes focused on a decorated tabletop as he powered up a small, home-designed motorized robot.
His teammates on the robotics team, decked out in matching camouflage sweatshirts and boonie hats, jumped and cheered around him, shouting instructions and encouragement as their robot finished rolling through the miniature obstacle course.
The Mt. Vernon “Alpha Squad” is more than just a chance for students to discuss and practice engineering and robotics, said head coach Forrest Gaston. It’s a sport of the mind.
The team took second place for project innovation at the First Lego League Indiana Championship Tournament this past weekend. Alpha Squad — made up of nine students from Mt. Comfort Elementary and Mt. Vernon Middle School — competed against 48 different teams across Indiana at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne on Saturday.
Though the team was first formed last school year, this is the first year members are taking part in competitions, school officials said. The competition comes as Mt. Vernon School Corp. invests more time and funding into STEM education by introducing more courses and clubs related to Science Technology Engineering and Math.
The team, made up of fourth- through eighth-graders, has been training and preparing for First Lego League competitions since June, Gaston said. The students took first place at their regional qualifying match in Kokomo last month.
Micha enjoys tinkering with the robots and seeing what he can do to impress the judges at competitions, he said.
“I’m probably going to devote some area of my career in science and technology,” Micha said. “If you work hard at this, you can get some good college points and scholarships. And it looks great on your résumé.”
Fifth-grader Ellie Salmon has been on Alpha Squad for two years. Her favorite part of participating on the robotics team is learning about problem solving while having fun with her friends outside of school.
“It’s an environment where I’m learning, and we’re helping people in a way, but we’re also having fun and hanging out,” Ellie said.
Besides robot programming and design, First Lego League also conducts a competition for project innovation, Gaston said. The organization challenges teams across the nation to research a real-world problem, develop a solution and give a professional presentation. This year Alpha Squad was tasked with developing a project to combat water pollution.
This spring, the Mt. Vernon youngsters drew up a coordinated water treatment effort to clean up dog waste that was accumulating in Cumberland’s Buck Creek, Gaston said. The children designed special receptacles to properly and efficiently dispose of animal waste along Buck Creek Trail to keep it from flowing into the creek and polluting the water.
Alpha Squad gave a presentation detailing their plan to the Cumberland Town Council, who praised their community service and moved forward on incorporating the plan, said assistant coach Brenda Gaston.
This presentation led to Alpha Squad’s success at First Lego League’s state competition.
Whether it’s programming a robot or brainstorming solutions to other problems, the activities the robotics team takes on always involve problem solving and critical thinking skills, she added. Their goal is to provide students with a base skill set to pursue a career in science or engineering.
“These are employability skills right here,” Brenda Gaston said.