The Office of Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia.

St. Bridget team fares well at FIRST LEGO competition

During competition at the FIRST LEGO League World Championships in Houston last month, members of Clueless, the St. Bridget School, Richmond, robotics team, complete a human knot challenge while awaiting a turn to run their robot. (Photo/Eric De Boer)

First-time participants at global event earn Rising All-Stars Award

St. Bridget Catholic School’s robotics team competed in the FIRST LEGO League World Championship in Houston last month. Throughout the year, 24,000 teams from around the globe competed in St. Bridget’s division, with only 108 earning a spot at the championship. Despite it being their first appearance at the competition, St. Bridget’s team, “Clueless,” earned the Rising All-Stars Award.

The event began April 20 with the unifying Parade of Teams where the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition in Science and Technology) flag was passed from team to team. Competitors from more than 40 countries attended the World Championship, including the middle schoolers from Richmond.

Clueless raised $30,000 from St. Bridget School and Church families to pay for hotels, meals and flights for every student and coaches and one chaperone per student.

Competitors had their faith on which to rely.

“I wasn’t nervous at all because I knew we might not win, and I was fine with that. I just wanted to represent my school well and have fun,” said robot chief coder William McLemore. “I felt supported by my family, school, community and by God. God was someone to turn to when I was stressed or worried something wasn’t going to work.”

The students had to adhere to strict guidelines and deadlines. They spent countless hours designing, building and programming their robot, followed by time practicing with and perfecting it.

Clueless’ robot is named C.H.E.R, which stand for Chic, Helpful, Energetic, Robot. The adaptive robot uses various sensors and complex preprogrammed codes written by the students to navigate a map and complete tasks accurately.

Clueless advanced through every round of competition to arrive at the World Championship, where they not only had to operate their robot, but field questions from judges.

Once competition ended, teams waited as judges deliberated and scored them. Teams were judged on the core values of teamwork, inclusion, discovery, impact and fun, and robot design.

Since Clueless had no expectations of winning an award, when their name was called for the Rising All-Stars Award, it was a huge surprise.

“When our team was called for the Rising All-Stars award, I was shocked and relieved,” said eighth grader Vincent Barrafato, who serves as the team’s robot chief lead. “The recognition that we got from this award meant so much to everyone on the team.”

“We were thrilled!” echoed coach Eric De Boer. “Six of our 10 team members were brand new to robotics, and this award shows that the judges noticed our team for its accomplishments and expect us to take another step forward in the future.”

One thing that set Clueless apart from their competitors was that the team helped pass a law in Virginia based on their “Bus Box” project.

The innovative Bus Box delivers packages to rural and underserved areas by utilizing school buses. Each Bus Box is made of recyclable materials, has 22 square feet of package capacity and can attach to the undercarriage of existing school buses.

Ideally, school bus drivers would be able to deliver packages in between taking children to and from school, which would give them the opportunity to work full-time and earn more money. Companies would also benefit from having increased deliveries and drivers, but fewer delivery vans on the road.

The idea was proposed to Virginia’s General Assembly and was later passed by the House and Senate. It was signed into law on April 8, 2022, by Gov. Glenn Youngkin. A resolution was also passed to recognize the team’s efforts. State Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant visited St. Bridget and presented a plaque to the team before they left for the World Championship. It is now up to school districts and companies to work out logistics.

When the students weren’t competing, they were socializing with people from different countries. Common interests broke through any language barriers. They found a community there, sharing their thoughts on engineering and learning about each other’s robots.

“My favorite part about the trip was the experience our kids had meeting teams from all over the world,” said De Boer. “Seeing all these kids interested in solving problems, learning STEM, asking big questions, treating each other with kindness as they competed was incredible.”

The whole experience resonated with the entire team.

“I feel like this trip will be one of my fondest memories for my whole life,” said McLemore.

The students also benefitted from speaking publicly in front of the judges and other teams, boosting their communication capabilities and confidence. The painstaking work of creating a robot also required responsibility, dedication and perseverance.

“The leadership skills I’ve received as a team captain will be something I carry with me for the rest of my life,” said project lead Langdon Tollett, who will graduate from St. Bridget School this year. She plans to stay involved in the club as a coach.

Clueless looks forward to next season. While there are several students graduating, there has been increased interest from fifth and sixth graders wanting to join the team.

De Boer said that now that the team has experienced the World Championship, they know what to expect and how they need to raise their standards to return.

While he is proud of his team for winning an award, he is prouder of the values they carried with them throughout the competition.

“Yes, it’s important for the robot to turn a specific way or for our poster to highlight an idea we had, but it’s more important for us to use our gifts in a way that honors and glorifies God,” De Boer said. “While the other teams are running around the convention center trying to show the FIRST LEGO League Core Values of inclusion, teamwork, innovation, discovery, fun and impact, we have a higher standard of Jesus to follow. I believe our faith gives our robotics teams an advantage because of our shared values in pursuit of Christ.”