Forming the Future: 'Roboteers' experience teamwork, innovation at Sacred Heart STEM School, Roslindale

ROSLINDALE -- At first, geothermal irrigation systems and spaceflight entertainment for astronauts seem to be topics too heavy for middle schoolers.

The "Roboteers," the competitive robotics team at Sacred Heart STEM School in Roslindale, would beg to differ.

The team, founded in 2016, is part of the First LEGO League, an international robotics competition for elementary and middle schoolers. Last year, the Roboteers made it to the competition's state finals at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

"The purpose of it is to offer the scholars at Sacred Heart the opportunity to use their knowledge in a fun and competitive way," said robotics team facilitator Patricia Girvan, who taught science and math at Sacred Heart for 25 years before retiring in 2021.

Each year's First LEGO League competition requires students to build robots out of Lego bricks and program them to successfully interact with Lego sculptures. With each successful interaction, the students win points, and the group with the most points wins. On Oct. 23, the Roboteers were programming the robots to follow basic directions.

"We try to see what the best path would be, and try different methods to get there," said seventh grader Gianna Lancione, who has been a Roboteer for three years. "It made me realize that I want to get more into coding."

The students program the robots using "word blocks," a type of computer code that describes its own function (ex. "Go forward"). Like blocks, the pieces of code can be pieced together in any fashion. The students can also control the speed of the robots, and how far they go.

"Tiny little adjustments can change how a code works completely," explained Jaysen Janvier, a sophomore at Archbishop Williams High School in Braintree and a former Roboteer.

Jaysen has always wanted to be an engineer, and he enjoys being able to "do a bunch of cool things" with robots. Nowadays, he volunteers to mentor the club members. The club members also mentor each other, giving them an opportunity to practice communication and leadership skills.

"Kids learn best from each other," Girvan said.

Jaysen said that the most important thing he teaches his younger peers is that "when there's a problem, you've got to keep trying, over and over."

Gabrielle said that when she and her fellow students finally find the successful program for their robots, they feel accomplished.

"Even though it took a lot of trial and error," she said, "at the end of the day, you did it."

The students are also tasked with answering "innovation questions." Each year's question presents a social problem, and students must come up with an idea for an invention to solve it. The Roboteers' invention ideas won the regional competition twice -- once in 2019 and again in 2022. In 2019, they designed a game for lonely astronauts to play in outer space. In 2022, they designed a "geopump irrigator," which would use geothermal energy to bring water to their school's garden. Their first-place trophy was a plastic cube filled with Lego bricks.

Girvan said that the competition lets students apply the scientific method.

"They have to be able to articulate the problem, to research the problem," she said. "They brainstorm different ways to make the solution based on the criteria of the question. And then they create something, and then they test it."

Girvan sees similarities between the First LEGO League's core values -- teamwork, inclusion, impact, fun, discovery, and innovation -- and Catholic education. The Roboteers' innovation ideas always take moral and ethical concerns into account.

"All of our engineering projects at Sacred Heart have a social justice component," she said.

The Roboteers will compete at Revere High School in the First LEGO League regional meet this December.