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First in FIRST

LASKER – It’s a tale as heroic as “David vs. Goliath” or “The Little Engine That Could.”

Or, better yet, it’s a tale that backs up an old saying, “it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but rather the size of the fight in the dog.”

Students involved in the Northeast Eagles Robotics Division (N.E.R.D.) team here at tiny Northeast Academy more than held their own at the recent FIRST (For Inspiration & Recognition of Science & Technology) Lego League Regional Competition in Greenville. There, the smallest school participating in the 18-team event walked away with the biggest prize: the coveted first place award in Core Values, the Inspiration Award.

According to N.E.R.D. head coach Tony Usalis, Core Values are the cornerstone of this STEM Program.

“Through Core Values, participants learn that friendly competition and mutual gain are not separate goals, and helping each other is the foundation of teamwork,” Usalis said. “Winning the Core Values Inspiration Award means more than any of the other types of recognition at this event, and that is a true testament of the values Northeast Academy instills in each one of its 160 students, from K-12.

“We competed against very, very large schools with seemingly endless resources, schools where Robotics has been part of their everyday curriculum,” stated Usalis. “We are so proud of our kids’ accomplishments, especially with the limited technological resources available in our rural area.”

The Northeast Eagles Robotics Division is composed of seven students from the 6th through 9th grades at Northeast Academy: Kathryn Long, Chase Futrell, Kate Coggins, Sarah Kate Ricks, William Coggins, Nathan Trevino, and Jayden Watts.

Usalis serves as the team’s head coach, and recognized the assistance from Northeast Academy teachers Dana Boone (6th grade), JoAnne Futrell (math), and Elizabeth Coggins (chemistry).

At the regional competition held in Greenville, this team successfully competed against the 18 other teams in the areas of Core Values, Robot Design, and Project Research and Presentation.

Founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen, FIRST is now the leading not-for-profit STEM engagement program for kids worldwide. FIRST participation is proven to encourage students to pursue education and careers in STEM related fields, inspire them to become leaders and innovators, and enhance their 21st century work-life skills.

“As coaches, we have witnessed the development of these life skills as our team members meet the challenges set forth by the FIRST LEGO LEAGUE (FLL) program,” noted Mrs. Boone.

FLL is an alliance between FIRST and the Lego Group for teams of no more than 10 members, ages 9-16.

In preparation for the FLL tournaments, Usalis said the N.E.R.D. team members design and program their robot to autonomously solve a set of missions on the FLL tabletop mission playing field. In addition to building a robot, the FLL teams are challenged to analyze a real world problem and to develop an innovative solution, which they then share with professionals in the area.

The topic of the challenge changes each year, but always pertains to current situations in the world.

“This year’s challenge topic is Hydrodynamics, and explores how we find, transport, use, and dispose of water,” Usalis said.

On tournament day, the N.E.R.D. team presented its research findings to the judges in an amusing, creative, and informative skit focusing on how to reduce the amount of water wasted by humans. Also, during the tournament, the team members are interviewed by three different panels of judges to in order to determine their accomplishments in Core Values and Robot Design as well as in the Challenge Project.

The FLL program introduces children to science and technology in a sporty atmosphere where team spirit and friendly competition are honored. FLL teams are given the opportunity to experience the steps of a real product development process under time constraints, with insufficient resources and unknown competition. The ultimate goal is to achieve success while working together and respecting each other. This is exactly how the N.E.R.D. team won the most desired award of all: The Core Values Inspiration Award. And now they are headed to the State Championships in Greensboro on January 21.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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