A physics teacher from Bishop Connolly is leading middle school students in robotics and science challenges during the pandemic.

If things were normal right now, middle school students across the state would be participating in the FIRST LEGO League robotics challenges around this time of year. According to a recent press release, social distancing and other safety considerations have altered these plans for the Catholic schools in the Diocese of Fall River. One teacher has gone above and beyond the call of duty to bring these challenges to the home front.

Photo contributed by Catholic Schools Alliance

Ellen Russell is a Physics, Engineering and Mathematics teacher at Bishop Connolly High School. She has stepped in to create a Diocesan challenge between Catholic middle school students in order to provide a hands-on robotics experience to students in grades 5 through 8.

According to Mrs. Russell, she and three Bishop Connolly physics students (all female) have weekly Zoom meetings with school teams on Thursday afternoons. The goal for each school’s team is to build a robot that will be challenged with completing 13 missions utilizing the City Shaper playing field and robotics kits. City Shaper was created by the FIRST LEGO League and was their National challenge in 2019-20. Each mission involves a task that requires specific design and programming features in order to be accomplished. Currently, middle school students from Holy Name, Espirito Santo, Saint Michael’s and Saint Mary’s Schools are learning how to build a simple robot and then program it to move forward, backwards and side to side. When they start to plan missions, they will need to build functional robot attachments and program their robots to lift LEGO houses, go up a ramp, release a swing, and lift a box with a crane.

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Photo contributed by Catholic Schools Alliance

“Robotics is a fun way for middle school students to begin to think critically and analyze how to solve problems,” Russell said. “While it is unfortunate that the normal league competitions are on hold, our middle school students are so excited to continue to hone their skills and learn new ways to problem-solve. Kids these ages love the hands-on experience and we are so blessed to be able to offer this activity to students in our Catholic elementary schools. We hope to have an in-person competition at Bishop Connolly in the late spring as the facilities are more than able to accommodate social distancing.”

Greta Costello, Maya Pontes, and Rachel Dias are the Bishop Connolly juniors who are serving as mentors for the program.

“It has been so much fun working with these kids,” Costello said. “They are so enthusiastic about developing the programs, robot parts, as well as strategies for getting as many points as possible. The more tasks, or missions, that each school’s robot completes, the more points they earn. Students at this age are so creative in their thinking and I have enjoyed mentoring them every step of the way. We are learning as much as they are!”

Kathy St. Laurent is the Principal of Bishop Connolly High School. She values this program highly.

“We are so fortunate to have educators like Ellen Russell leading our STEM initiative," St. Laurent said. "Our students are receiving a state-of-the-art education in science, engineering, and computer technology courses. They are well prepared for college and career in a rapidly growing and competitive field.”

Russell is also planning a spring Science Olympiad for elementary school students in grades 1 through 4 where there are two events for each grade level and two students per grade compete. Ellen indicates that these are such formative years for students to gain the love of science and to not be intimidated by the content or methods. As she works with the younger students, Ellen ensures that the activities are age-appropriate to delight, inspire, and engage elementary school children with the love of science and discovery.

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