Echo Canyon fifth grader Joy Smith

Echo Canyon fifth grader Joy Smith, 11, participate in the First LEGO League robotics competition at Mohave Middle School.

The 2019-20 First LEGO League State Championship took place last weekend, but it was just one of the state-qualifying robotics tournaments making waves throughout Scottsdale.

Mohave Middle School in southern Scottsdale hosted one of 13 FLL robotics tournaments last month and what made this particular tournament special was its first-time inclusion of Pardes Jewish Day School.

Students “were thrilled to be included,” said Susan Finks, LEGO League Robotics Coach for Pardes Jewish Day School, K-8 in northern Scottsdale. “Oftentimes, sports clubs are on weekends, and they can’t participate. And it was lovely to see the inclusion and we were able to compete.”

In years past, Pardes was unable to participate in league qualifiers because they took place on Saturdays, their sabbath. 

But this year, the Saguaro High School robotics team and Mohave Middle School extended the tournament to include Friday, so the Pardes students could take part.

“We learned about Pardes Jewish Day School’s predicament early in the year and almost immediately decided to do whatever we could to accommodate them,” said Kayli Battel, a senior at Saguaro High School and member of the school’s Sabercat Robotics club, which has organized and conducted the event since 2014.

“We firmly believe any student, regardless of situation, should be able to pursue STEM through FLL, so we decided we would host a mini-tournament the day before, making it official with the Pardes students competing against some of Mohave’s teams for realistic scores and some of the same judges from Saturday,” added Battel, a member of Saguaro’s Math and Science Academy and co-founder of Sisters in STEM.

As part of the FLL tournament, fourth through eighth-grade students used LEGO Mindstorms technology to design, build, test, and program robots. 

This season’s FLL Challenge was called “City Shaper,” and the goal was to develop ideas to support strong, inclusive and sustainable cities of the future. 

“This year, the kids researched a problem in our community, whether that’s local or school-wide. Our seventh graders had been very concerned about the amount of plastic water bottles and foam lunch containers there are at lunch,” Finks said.

The students stuffed water bottles with clean foam, and placed those water bottles inside of a pallet, sealing it air-tight with cardboard and duct tape. 

“They tested that versus a regular pallet, putting each on top of a box to see if the pallet with the stuffing would actually work for insulation as a renewable resource or even insulation for the homeless,” Finks explained.

They worked on the project for about 10 weeks.

“FLL is extremely important to our team because it’s not only a great way to reach out to members of the community and get them involved in STEM, but it’s a fantastic opportunity for the students to see what they can create,” Kayli said. 

“Overall, it’s an exceedingly gratifying opportunity for our team to be involved with. Each year, we learn something new about organization, leadership, management, and about the kids themselves,” she added.

At the tournament, 10 teams advanced to state, and of those 10 teams, two were from SUSD schools.

Last weekend, 85 teams competed at the FLL State Championship at Arizona State University.

Though they did not advance, Navajo Elementary School and Pardes’ respective teams won some awards. 

Navajo’s robotics team won the Outstanding Core Values Award, while Pardes’ team won the Judges Award, which Finks said they received for their “persistence, wanting to be involved in the league, and stepping outside [their] comfort zone.”

“We got a lot of cheers when they came back with their trophy,” Finks said proudly.

“Sitting in on deliberations, I got to listen to our judges praise the teams I had just watched in action. The qualifier really is an immensely gratifying and rewarding experience for everyone involved – the directors, judges, volunteers, coaches, and students – and to witness these interactions made the months of preparation so worth it,” Kayli added.

Finks said the students not only learned robotic skills, but also learned the FLL Core Values: discovery, innovation, impact, inclusion, teamwork, and fun.

“We love the Core Values portion because it just backed up everything we teach as a Jewish school as far as being respectful of each other and inclusion,” Finks said. 

Finks added the students also learned to “fail forward,” which, she said, is something she teachers students in Makerspace, too.

Finks taught math at Pardes for four years and she is currently in her second year teaching Makerspace, a program debuted at Pardes during the 2018-2019 school year where students learn science, technology, engineering, art, math and critical thinking

“The kids do a lot of critical thinking. They are working on projects from robotics to soldering, and we start coding right at kindergarten,” Finks said.

This school year is the first year Finks has been the LEGO League Robotics Coach. Mark Evans, a math teacher at Pardes, is co-coach.

The Saguaro-organized FLL tournament was such a success, Kayli and Natalie Foster, fellow Saguaro student and co-director for the FLL tournament, were recognized with SUSD Challenge Coins for their efforts.

“The SUSD Challenge Coin was an absolute honor to receive. Just to be invited to speak at the SUSD Governing Board Meeting in the first place was a privilege, and when Natalie and I were told we had received the coins, we were in shock,” Kayli said.

Kayli said the Challenge Coins show elementary and middle-school students “they can do anything.”

“The coin itself was a recognition of something we were able to partake in, it introduced not only our robotics team, but many other volunteers to our community,” she added. 

As next year’s tournament director, Natalie added the recognition “furthers the motivation to continue to work to improve our community through robotics and make an impact on kids’ lives.”