A First for Hopper Robotics

A First for Hopper Robotics
Dani Seiss

Ten GDS students, clad in matching black Hopper t-shirts, entered their first-ever robotics competition with a robot made of Legos and left with a “Core Values” trophy for their display of enthusiasm, sportsmanship, and a collaborative spirit.

The team of 7th and 8th graders, called Hopper Robotics, was one of several DC-area groups at Alexandria’s Hayfield Secondary School in November for the FIRST LEGO League, a globally recognized robotics competition designed to inspire critical thinking, coding, and design skills among youth through hands-on learning. 

The competition drew an energized crowd to the school’s cafeteria. As students huddled around tables, directing their robots to complete strategic tasks, referees kept score and spectators hovered at the perimeters, iPhones held high to capture the action. An emcee in a sparkly blue jacket spoke loudly into his microphone, announcing start and stop times and so much more. 

LMS School Innovation and Computer Science Teacher Gwen Hicks, marveled at the students’ performance, specifically at how they evolved as a team during the weeks leading up to the competition in terms of organization and working together for a common purpose. 

“They had to build a robot, program it, and decide which tasks the robot should perform in order to get the most points in the least amount of time,” Gwen said. “But it’s not just about what you build. It’s about the presentation and how you act. Are you kind to people? Are you helpful? Do you have good sportsmanship?” 

The way the GDS students conducted themselves earned them the award for “Core Values,” a key component of the scoring system. The values include “Gracious Professionalism,” defined as exploring new skills and ideas, solving problems in creative ways with an eye toward improving the world, and respecting others. “Coopertition”–the idea that teams can help each other even as they compete–also figures prominently in the core values scoring. 

The Hopper Robotics team had been working since September on their LEGO robot, which they named “Gracious Hopper,” a nod to the legendary computer scientist Grace Hopper and the program’s core value of “Gracious Professionalism.” 

Another scoring component involved having each team take on an innovative project tied to the broader theme of the competition: finding new ways to communicate art across the globe. Hopper Robotics focused on how to make drawing more interesting, and the students created an electronic survey that was circulated among their GDS peers to dig deeper into that question.

"We found that some people have short attention spans," said Marika Eilperin Light '29.' They want to see the process, but they don’t want to watch for a long time."

The team decided that stop motion animation, a flip-book style animation that captures a process frame by frame, was the solution. “Every single one of our students contributed to the presentation and participated in writing slides,” Gwen said. “I think that really worked in our favor.” 

At GDS, Hopper Robotics met during school hours to ensure that students had enough time to devote to the program and easy access to it. The program ran from September to November leading up to the competitions. Teams are limited to 10 students and each are required to have two coaches, so GDS was able to have one team. 

Gwen noticed an active change in the group from September to November, where at first they were “...not organized, not working together, kind of on their own. But by the end, I was watching them really work together…They took ownership and they really led it… We watched the evolution of some of these kids.”

LMS School Innovation and Computer Science Teacher and Department Chair Elvin Peprah, who co-coached the team with Gwen, said this particular robotics competition provides students with the scaffolding on which they can build an appreciation of STEM and nurture connections with one another. 

"I look at robotics as an incredible, applicative pipeline of all of the things we think about innovation,” Elvin said. “When I think about robotics as a subject, I see it as one of the more fun, quick-win, jumping-off points for developing a broader interest in STEM."

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A First for Hopper Robotics
  • Innovate and Create
  • Middle School