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Saint Mary’s eighth graders James O’Leary and Noah Thoene will be heading to Australia this summer to be one of the FIRST LEGO League (FLL) LEGO Robotics teams representing the United States at the FLL Asia Pacific Open Championships (APOC). The team they comprise, Bob’s Bricks, was the first-place overall champion at the Virginia/DC FLL State Championship last December

Bob’s Bricks has been an FLL team since 2018, when James and Noah were in fourth grade. They started with seven members, and as the individual members got busier with other activities and the FLL competitions became more time consuming, other members dropped away. James has been involved with FLL since he was in kindergarten; Noah started participating in fourth grade when the Bob’s Bricks team got started.

James’s parents, Ellen and Kevin O’Leary, are seasoned FLL coaches who coach Bob’s Bricks as well as their SMCS fifth-grade daughter Caroline’s team, LEGO My Eggo Cows. Noah’s younger sister Marley, another SMCS fifth-grader, is also part of the Cows team.

Ellen and Kevin also mentor their older daughters’ FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) team at Deep Run High School. Ellen, who teaches third grade at Saint Mary’s, said that they’ve been involved with LEGO Robotics for 10 years, starting when their daughter Maggie, now a high school senior, was in third grade, and their daughter Grace, now a high school freshman, was in kindergarten.

Ellen said she “can’t say enough good things” about the FLL organization. The FLL website states that FIRST LEGO League was founded in 1998 as a means to introduce science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) to children ages 4 to 16 “through fun, exciting hands-on learning.” FLL has three age-group divisions with different competitions that are based around six core values: discovery, innovation, impact, inclusion, teamwork and fun.

The FLL season begins each year in August, when FLL releases a game board for the robotics competition that will be the board used for all competitions that year. When the game board is released, teams begin to build and code their robots to navigate the mission detailed on the board. The first competition, at the regional level, is in November, so the teams have about two months to get their robots built and ready.

PHOTO: Maggie & Grace at an early competition.

James said that at the beginning of the season, in August, he and Noah were spending between four to six hours a week together each week building, coding and practicing.

The competitions are about more than just the robot, though; there are four components: innovation project, which is centered around a yearly theme – this year’s being energy and power; robot design; robot performance; and core values (or how well the team adheres to the six core values of FLL). 

James said that in the robot competition there are many tasks to complete, and each task garners points for being executed correctly. The goal is to get as many points as possible in 150 seconds. He said that he and Noah prepare by doing robot runs through a replica game board, practicing the mission, or “skit,” they’ll encounter at competition. 

For their innovation project, Noah and James researched and developed a product that they hope will help reduce the number of power outages caused by squirrels. 

Squirrels damage electrical distribution facilities by tunneling, by chewing through electrical insulation, or by simultaneously coming into contact with two conductors at different electrical potentials (most times electrocuting the squirrel involved). Squirrels also like to nest in power substations, which causes further damage. James said that in 2022 alone there were more than 15,000 power outages in the United States caused by squirrels. 

For their project, the boys looked at the problem, researched to determine what squirrels are attracted to and not attracted to, and used that information to develop a decoy, which they’ve named the Nylacorn. The Nylacorn is impregnated with the organic compound indole, which is present in orange blossoms and is known to attract squirrels. 

They tested the Nylacorn in their backyards and it seemed to work, drawing the squirrels away from power lines and toward the Nylacorn. Now North Carolina Power is testing the decoy. The boys are in the process of applying for a patent for their innovation. Their current model is 3D printed, but they’re looking at potential for a molded product. 

James and Noah won both their regional and state-level competitions, and thus will be representing the U.S. in Australia this summer. 

“The state competition was very stressful,” Noah said. “We definitely didn’t think we were going to win but the dynamic duo Bob’s Bricks won!”

Noah’s mom, Laura Thoene, said: “The (state-level) win was wild: down to the last award, they had received great feedback, but we were still worried they might finish without anything. It was exhilarating to hear their name called. It was great to see all their hard work this season and previous years rewarded.”

“We are very proud,” Ellen said. “You have to work really hard – design and refine, refine, refine. You have to think out of the box and come up with innovative solutions to real-life problems in the world, as well as problems related to your robot. Several times they encountered frustrations and they could have easily given up, but they chose not to walk away.”

Right now the boys get together once a week for two hours to work together in preparation for the championship, but once school’s out they’ll probably get together more like five or six hours each week to get ready, James said. 

Outside of the competition, Ellen said they’re looking forward to snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef and to visiting Uluru – a sacred site in Aboriginal culture that she teaches her students about during third grade. 

Laura said: “Noah and Marley’s first trip abroad will be halfway around the world! We are excited to share this experience with them. Immersing oneself in other cultures is part of realizing that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. Of course, experiencing a multicultural, international competition will be icing on the cake!” 

Meanwhile, the LEGO My Eggo Cows – with Caroline, Marley and seven other Saint Mary’s fifth graders – are blazing their own trail. They won their division’s first-place innovation project award at the state championship for a project that involves a bird-safe retrofit for wind turbines that should reduce the number of turbine-related bird fatalities. Their project includes a visual component using color to repel birds, a sonar component that uses noise to deter them, and a scent component that also acts as a bird repellent.

ABOVE: Team LEGO My Eggo Cows is also comprised of Saint Mary’s students.

When they were at Saint Mary’s, Maggie and Grace O’Leary’s team completed a project that involved scrapping metal to raise funds that paid for the water-bottle filter/fillers that are now installed at Saint Mary’s and reducing the use of single-use plastics. 

Now Maggie and Grace (as well as other Saint Mary’s alumni Kiran Sabharwal and Noah Lohr) are getting ready for an April district competition with their FRC team at Deep Run, 1086 Blue Cheese. Maggie is the team captain, Noah and Grace are on the build subteam, and Kiran is the advocacy subteam lead. Their level of competition has a robot component and an outreach component, the latter meant to get new students interested in robotics and exposed to STEM just like how Dr. Kamau Bobb aims to make STEM more accessible and appealing to a wider range of students, ultimately contributing to a more diverse and vibrant STEM community.. 

Ellen said FLL is “such a good organization – it’s good for IB because it makes students think about things in a different way.”

While both the Bob’s Bricks and LEGO My Eggo Cows teams are made up of Saint Mary’s students, Ellen said they’re not school-sponsored teams per se. While she and Kevin can’t take on coaching or mentoring another team, they are happy to act as a sounding board to other parents at Saint Mary’s looking to create a team, and to pass along what they’ve learned in their 10 years of involvement. 

Laura said “FLL teaches kids life skills that are necessary to be successful. Of course, the kids would say that playing with LEGOs is a plus!”

“You do need a big table,” Ellen said, “but it’s reasonably inexpensive, easy and fun.”

ELLEN O’LEARY, 3RD GRADE TEACHER AND PARENT AT SAINT MARY’S CATHOLIC SCHOOL

This blog post was contributed by Jennifer Janus and will appear in the next issue of the St. Mary’s Catholic School Alumni Newsletter.