WEST BETHESDA, Md. —
Students at Burning Tree Elementary School under mentorship from employees at Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division (NSWCCD) earned a second-place finish in the Montgomery County, Maryland, For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) LEGO League competition regional qualifier Jan. 10.
The team of 11 fifth-graders competed with other students researching a real-world problem adhering to the “Trash Trek” theme, developing a solution, and building and programming an autonomous robot using LEGO tools and software to solve other challenges.
“They competed against older students, and there’s no leveling the playing field or handicapping for age,” said Jonathan Hopkins, a mechanical engineer in the NSWCCD Materials Division who has mentored with the LEGO Robotics outreach program for five years. “We met with them once a week as NAVSEA mentors, but they worked on their ideas after school and on weekends, too.”
The students, who called their team the Burning Tree Elementary School Navy SEALs, found inspiration for their research project after eating snacks during their first after-school team meeting with mentors from Carderock. When they realized how much plastic waste they generated “just in that moment,” according to Hopkins, they decided to tackle the school’s lack of a recycling program for these bags.
The students received their inspiration from Montgomery County Councilmember Roger Berliner, who in 2012 proposed a 5-cent tax on all plastic bags purchased in Montgomery County stores. The students researched the quantity of plastic bags produced each year and the impact on the environment. Then they created bins for the cafeteria to collect unused sandwich bags from their fellow students in hopes of recycling them to create a greenhouse for other students growing produce on school grounds.
In an open letter to their principal, the Burning Tree students wrote, “We Americans throw away 100 billion plastic bags per year. People around the country are trying to find solutions, such as organizing groups to go clean up the trash that other Americans leave cluelessly. But we came up with a solution that we think will really change Montgomery County in a good way.”
The students proposed providing similar bins to all classrooms in all Montgomery County Public Schools, which Hopkins said impressed he and the other Burning Tree mentors, Tracy Carole, from the NSWCCD Environmental Quality Division and Nathan Hagan from the NSWCCD Structures and Composites Division, as well as school and county leadership.
“I was really happy about the enthusiasm that the kids had, and that they’re interested in following through after the competition,” Hopkins said. “They made a model prototype for the competition, but they’re going to make five total and follow up how their proposal to Montgomery County pans out. We’re really excited about it."
Carole said the dedication of the students impressed her last year, her first year involved with the LEGO outreach program, and did this year as well.
“They were met on holidays and weekends; there was great parental support for the project,” Carole said. “Every team is great, but this team really worked well together.”
According to its website (www.firstlegoleague.org), the FIRST LEGO League is a national not-for-profit organization that values mentorship, friendly competition and the sharing of experiences to make the application of science, technology, engineering and mathematics concepts more fun. Hopkins and other Carderock engineers have been involved in efforts like these as part of the command’s larger outreach efforts to increase students’ and teachers’ awareness and understanding of careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, especially ones at Carderock.
With the FIRST LEGO League and other robotics competitions, Hopkins said the building and programming of the robots – “the fun part” – is the hook to get students involved.
“The idea is you get the kids interested early on and excited about applying the knowledge they have,” Hopkins said. “This is done in such a way with the LEGO software that it’s easily accessible. They’re doing graphic-based programming. That’s something I didn’t get into until college, and they’re using it to program a robot to solve challenges.”
Hopkins said his involvement in student outreach began when he was a student himself and has continued during his time at Carderock because seeing students learn and share their knowledge with one another inspires him. He said the success and support of Burning Tree, the first school NSWCCD employees have worked with, is an example of the growth the program has seen in recent years.