Fairmont Catholic School robotics team preps for upcoming competition

Nov. 9—FAIRMONT — Robots will soon pour out of Fairmont Catholic School but there's no need to panic. They're here to help.

The school's robotics team will be competing for the first time in the First Lego League Challenge competition in December at Fairmont State. However, part of the competition's structure asks its young participants to consider how robotics might be used to help the local community.

"They really wanted to help populations that they see having difficulty in the community which are the homeless," Julia Van Volkenburg, director of the school's robotics program, said. "And addiction issues as well. Unfortunately, they see (the) homeless in Fairmont pretty regularly and they want to make the situation for them better. And they came up with building a community garden which would not only be aesthetic for the city, but the produce could help feed our homeless population."

Where the Fairmont Catholic School students really took their idea to the next level was using robotics to induce increased growth using sound waves. The garden could self sustain, foregoing the use of expensive human labor while making a regenerating, self maintaining source of food available for the most vulnerable populations.

The second idea another team had was hosting a video game tournament and using the proceeds to benefit agencies that would help individuals who have substance use issues.

As artificial intelligence and robotics integrate deeper into everyday life, more and more schools are offering programs like the First Lego League on their campuses. Volkenburg, along with Amy Marchesani, spearheaded the creation of the program last year as an after school activity. Part of what made creating the program attractive to Volkenburg is that her son, David, loves Legos along with science and technology. He's a fourth grade student at the school. Volkenburg said nurturing his interest and fostering it is important to her as a parent. Out of that desire to help her son, the rest of the program followed.

"I think it's important because it allows them to learn and interact with technology at a young age," Van Volkenburg said. "Students are coding in the first grade, which is wonderful. And it also allows them to work together as a team with something that they enjoy. And some students, their areas of interest are not sports or Scouts, it really is something like robotics and this gives them the chance to foster that and have it grow from a young age on."

The way that First Lego League approaches this subject also fosters creativity. It recognizes that art and science, technology, engineering and mathematics aren't apart, but rather complementary to each other. That's why the theme for this year's program is "Masterpiece."

Students will use the skills they learn in coding and engineering to communicate art. To supplement that growth in critical thinking, Volkenberg and program volunteers are taking the students to Fairmont State University on Monday, where students will get to see what goes into curating a museum at the Frank and Jane Gabor West Virginia Folklife Center. They'll also get a chance to go into Wallman Hall to see what sort of technical skills go into putting on a stage production.

Most of the coaches have teaching backgrounds. Volkenburg is a speech pathologist by trade with a doctorate in curriculum and education. Marchesani teaches language arts at Monongah Middle. Leah Boyce, one of the volunteers, also has a daughter in the program. Boyce herself has a background in technology, which allows her to help with the building and coding.

"I just think it's amazing how they can pick this up," Boyce said. "Kids that never even thought of how a computer works or how a robot moves, and they may not pick it up immediately, but as soon as they kind of get it they get really excited. I love to see how excited they get when it moves the first time or when it does what they want it to do."

Dominica Yoho, another volunteer with a child in the program, said her daughter loves the coding side of it. Yoho enrolled her daughter at a robotics camp earlier during the summer at Fairmont State. The robotics team built upon the excitement her daughter developed for the discipline at the summer program.

Yoho said her daughter is doing things on an iPad that Yoho has never seen before. For a girl to get invested into this area could be very beneficial, she said. However, the program doesn't shove coding into their brains, instead the learning happens alongside play which keeps the subject from becoming stale. It also made Yoho reflect on her own experience growing up when programs like this didn't exist in the '80s or '90s. She's learned a lot about electronics herself just by watching her daughter build the robots.

"I think that when you make it fun with the Legos, they don't see it the way we do," she said. "We see it as, all of this could help in her future career. She's just having fun. I think when they just are seeing that at a young age and the love is put in there, I think that that goes with them into the rest of their lives."

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