St. Bridget Catholic School’s robotics team is heading to Houston to compete in the FIRST LEGO League World Championship. It recently won the Champions Award at the Virginia state competition in Harrisonburg, Saturday, Dec. 3, meaning it was ranked the best team overall. Though the 10-member team of sixth through eighth graders is named “Clueless,” its members are anything but, beating out more than 70 other teams to advance to the world championship, which will be held next year.
“I was blown away by all this,” said coach Eric De Boer, who was holding a watch party at the school. “When they announced the winners, (fellow coach) Rob Walters and I could barely stand up. We couldn’t believe it!”
Robot Chief Coder William McLemore, a sixth grader, recalled, “I was so surprised when I saw we won. Everyone was screaming and celebrating. I didn’t know what to do, so I just screamed!”
The “FIRST” in the competition title stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.” Teams are judged on core values (teamwork, inclusion, discovery, impact and fun), the ability to solve a real-world problem and robot design. Teams had to create both a robot and an “Innovation Project” based on this year’s theme, which was ways to improve transportation. Clueless fittingly named its robot “Cher” after the iconic character in the movie “Clueless.”
Eighth grader Vincent Barrafato served as the robot chief lead. He helped program Cher to complete specific missions by following codes designed by the students. He was overjoyed at their win. “The team has worked very hard putting in hours every week and for that hard work to pay off is truly a dream come true,” he said.
Innovation project draws attention
For their innovation project, Clueless designed and created what they call a “Bus Box.” The Bus Box delivers packages to Amazon lockers and underserved rural areas. According to the team’s website, delivery companies spend 53% of all shipping costs on getting packages to their final destination, known as the “Final Mile.” This is impacted by road conditions, truck capacity, routing changes, and other factors. Innovation Project Lead Langdon Tollett, who came up with the idea, explained:
“Bus Box is an innovative way to deliver Amazon packages to locker and rural locations using existing school bus infrastructure. Each box has 22 square feet of package capacity and can attach to the undercarriage of existing school buses between the wheels,” the eighth grader explained.
As with most professions during the pandemic, there is a staff shortage of school bus drivers as well as delays of package deliveries. The Bus Box aims to improve the situation for all involved.
School bus drivers would be able to deliver Amazon packages in between taking children to and from school, which would give them the opportunity to work full time and earn more money. Amazon would have increased deliveries and drivers.
School systems would work with Amazon as contracted driving partners. If this happens, the hope is that schools could potentially attract more bus drivers and offer higher pay.
In addition to helping individual workers and consumers, Clueless is looking to help the world. Each Bus Box is constructed from recycled material. Environmental consciousness is something that is very important to the team, according to McLemore.
“One of the main reasons that we decided to do the Bus Box is because it saved resources by eliminating the need for so many delivery vans,” he said. “We are also trying to stop climate change by getting less gas-powered cars on the road. We are trying to protect God’s creation.”
To find out the best way to execute their idea, Clueless spoke to multiple experts in the field, such as Mastery Logistics, Henrico County’s director of transportation, Amazon Fresh Delivery, Virginia Department of Education, iRobot and others. Months of planning and replanning occurred as they learned more from these consultants. De Boer recalled the moment he truly understood the project’s potential.
“It was when we spoke with the expert from Mastery Logistics that I realized how good this idea was,” he said. “His whole job is delivery, and he couldn’t believe what the kids were thinking about in middle school and how the team is solving the two biggest issues in deliveries – final mile and underutilized assets.”
Walters is an engineer who always wanted to coach a robotics team and is elated to be part of this team. He hopes that St. Bridget and other schools adopt more STEM programs. He said that he has seen first-hand the effect the team has had on members by developing leadership and teamwork skills, time management, core values, and giving the students a goal for them to achieve – which Clueless surpassed.
The team experienced some setbacks but always worked together to overcome them. Early prototypes were scrapped, and plans were reworked. Students dedicated themselves to the task at hand, all while keeping up with their schoolwork and other extracurricular activities. As the state competition approached, team members were working on the project every day, including weekends. Most importantly, they worked together.
“We needed to work well as a team to pull this off, and I think one of the reasons we advanced was our teamwork,” said Tollett.
Clueless’ journey has many stops before it travels its own final mile. In addition to preparing for the world championship, the team is also planning on talking to Henrico County’s school board, expanding their social media presence, and trying to obtain a patent. The team is also trying to raise funds to install a Bus Box on a working school bus so they can see their creation at work.
Barrafato believes the students’ faith helped them along the way.
“Our faith has inspired us a lot and connected us even further. Often before we started our meetings, we would pray, thanking God for our good fortune and the opportunity to participate in this club,” he shared. “Our faith has inspired us to work hard and appreciate all the good fortune we have received during the season.”
De Boer sees the team’s success as an example of God’s grace.
“Some may say ‘all the stars aligned,’ but as a Christian, I see it as God showering down blessings on us,” he said. “We didn’t ask for all this – just like his grace he offers us in Jesus. There are times in your life when you just have to take a step back and marvel at God’s hand at work. For me, this experience was one of those times.”
Editor’s note: To learn more about Clueless and the Bus Box, visit https://www.cluelessrobotics.com.