A group of Johnson County seventh- and eighth-graders are building quite a reputation as champions in the world of local Lego competitions.
The Brick Ops team, made up of five friends who all attend Ascension Catholic School in Overland Park, won the FIRST Lego League Kansas City Regional Championship robotics competition held in January at Union Station. The team was crowned overall champions.
The robotics team competition began last fall with 141 teams made up of kids ages 9-14. Four qualifying events eventually narrowed the field to 40 teams. Brick Ops was among them.
The FIRST Organization is a worldwide progression of programs that encourages excitement about science, technology, engineering and math. KC FIRST is the regional chapter for the FIRST Organization.
The Brick Ops team is coached by Sally Rode and Steve Baranowski, both of Overland Park, who each has a child on the team. It’s the second year the Brick Ops team has competed in the event, which made the win all that much more exciting.
“We were thrilled and surprised,” said Rode. “We were really glad to see all of our hard work come to fruition like that. The kids had the biggest smiles ever.”
In the competition, teams are judged in three categories: robot design, project and core values. They must also compete in a series of robot games that last about two-and-a-half minutes each.
For the last four months, the Brick Ops team has been meeting twice a week for two hours at a time. Baranowski oversaw the team’s building of the robot, while Rode oversaw the team’s completion of the project, which had to offer a solution to a specific problem.
Team Brick Ops tackled the project question, “How can we improve the way kids with dyslexia learn to read?” Since the team members personally know someone who has dyslexia, they were inspired to choose the topic.
Their solution was to build something they call Lexi-Learn. It’s a textured, silicone cover they designed to fit an iPhone 6 and is meant to work with phonics learning apps. It gives the user a textured surface when tracing their letters on the apps. The goal is to give the user a multi-sensory learning experience, which is supposed to aid in retention.
The kids then came up with a five-minute presentation of their project that they presented to the judges.
“The kids do it all without coach or adult help,” said Rode. “They go before the judges by themselves and they are judged on how creative and innovative the idea is and how many people will be helped by it.”
The teams are also judged on core values, or how well the team exhibits sportsmanship and professionalism. Given how well the Brick Ops team works together, it’s apparent that this was one element of their success.
“They are friends who are really cooperative and curious to learn,” said Rode. “And they really seem to like and respect each other, so they work well as a team. We actually got that comment from the core values judge at one of the tournaments that it really showed how well the kids got along.”
Team members agree that having a strong relationship has helped them accomplish their goals.
“We were really good at working together and coming up with solutions to problems by combining our ideas and brainstorming,” said seventh-grader Michael Rode. “We combined our ideas that could potentially fix the problem.”
Eighth-grader Taylor Pitzl said she was constantly benefiting from the knowledge of her fellow teammates.
“It’s really cool to figure out how to do something and you learn from the other teammates,” said Taylor. “They teach you and you teach them.”
Not surprisingly, one of the best parts about being named overall champions of the competition is the large trophy made out of Lego bricks that was presented to the team. And because this team works so well together, they even found a creative way to make sure each of the five team members gets to fully enjoy it.
“The trophy rotates,” said Michael Rode. “Each team member gets it for a week or two and then they pass it off to someone else.”