Jim Graves is a Catholic writer and editor living in Newport Beach, California. He previously served as Managing Editor for the Diocese of Orange Bulletin, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Orange, California. His work has appeared in the National Catholic Register, Our Sunday Visitor, Cal Catholic Daily and Catholic World Report.
A trip to Kentucky, a daughter’s passion for technology, and two parents inspired by creating opportunities for both girls and boys in computer science and engineering, have led to the creation and rise of a robotics team at All Saints Catholic School in Bangor in the Diocese of Portland, Maine, that has become one of the best in the state.
“It’s kind of unbelievable when you think of how this all came together in just two years,” said Shannon Murphy as her eyes darted around the new robotics lab at All Saints and the over 20 students and adults working, including her mother and father. “It really is amazing.”
The journey began in Louisville, Kentucky, where Shannon and her father, Michael Murphy, volunteered at the VEX Robotics World Championship in May 2017.
“When she returned from that competition, she said that she wanted to start a robotics team at All Saints where she was a seventh grader,” said Casey Murphy, Shannon’s mom. “And she wanted me to coach it.”
In a VEX Robotics competition, students are given a yearly challenge, and must design, build, program, and drive a robot to complete the challenge as best as they can. The idea of building a robotics team from scratch was overwhelming, but the possibility of nurturing her daughter’s passion while providing a new avenue that other All Saints students could pursue made the idea appealing.
And, fortunately, Casey didn’t have to look far for guidance.
“My husband, Michael, is the director of technology and coach of the robotics team at John Bapst High School in Bangor. At the start, the All Saints team met at John Bapst and worked alongside the John Bapst robotics teams,” said Casey. “Our first team had five students. We used the John Bapst building space, supplies, and field, and the John Bapst students, by default, became mentors for the All Saints middle school team.”
As a new team, All Saints received enough funds through grants to purchase a basic robot (“brain,” controller, battery, gears, wheels and metal). In the months that followed, additional funding came from grants accompanied by letters from parents and students.
“Once we were into our second year, the baseline startup grants were no longer available,” said Casey. “In order to fund our own 12’ x 12’ field and field components, as well as buy our own tools, we sold concessions during the robotics meets. This required a parent team of about 10 volunteers, all cooking meals and baked goods to serve over the 12-hour long competition at John Bapst.”
As the fundraising continued to increase, so did the interest in the team.
“Word spread quickly once Casey and the students were working with the John Bapst team and building the All Saints program up,” said Matthew Houghton, principal of All Saints. “Watching the hard work, effort, and patience put forth by our parents and staff was inspiring.”
During the 2018-19 school year, Casey was hired as the full-time technology director, integrator, and robotics coach at All Saints and the team entered its own home in May as a computer room on the St. John’s campus was transformed into a robotics lab, including a 12’ x 12’ VEX competition field.
This spring, more than 20 students signed up in 15 minutes.
“With Casey stepping into the technology position here, she was given the mandate of ‘we want more technology.’ The commitment from All Saints has been great,” said Michael, who still helps the All Saints team as a ‘mentor.’ “This robotics lab used to be a room with computers where kids would come in from time to time. Now, it’s so vibrant and full.”
There are currently 15 middle school students on the All Saints competitive teams, with five students on each team. Each team is responsible for researching and designing a robot, building a robot, programming the robot, competing with the robot, and documenting all steps of the engineering process. This year’s skills challenge for the VEX competition is “Tower Takeover,” a very strategic game in which students stack and move cubes in a race against both opponents and time
As the teams prepare for the competition, a focused intensity could be seen on each student’s face in the lab on a Friday afternoon in late September.
“See over there on the screen? I’m following a design and building,” said Aiden Ouellette, a sixth grader in his first year on the team, as he worked on his robot while keeping one eye on a computer monitor nearby. “The claw in the picture, that will go up, and then close to lift up a cube and put it in a tower. You get points for the amount of cubes you put in the tower. This is my first robot I’ve built, so I hope it works!”
“Competitions can be a little stressful,” said Andrew Hamel, who is in his second year on the team, as he watched Aiden’s progress. “Once the robot works, the fun really begins.”
“My favorite part is the building and programming,” said Sophia Ward, a seventh grader. “The building is cool because you see your design come alive and then with the programming, the robot is able to actually do things.”
“This is the course and I’m going over ideas on how our robot can score points for our team,” said Abby Lewis, a seventh grader, as she studied a map of the field. “I like this part. Figuring out how to score points is fun!”
“I’ve had a chance to do a lot of the roles and this year, I’m a documenter,” said Shannon, now a member of the robotics team at John Bapst and mentor for the All Saints students. “I really enjoy it. It’s fun to follow the rubric and help some of the new students who have joined. Everyone gets the hang of it.”
“During practice, students are researching robot designs online, participating in VEX forums designed to share information, sketching out designs in their engineering notebooks, and finding the components that they need to build the robot they have designed,” said Casey. “They are building from base pieces of metal and gears, beginning with a drive system, and then moving to the lift and the claw. They are testing out what they have built, and rebuilding and retesting. It is a busy and loud time, and might, to an outsider, seem chaotic. But STEM is an active and engaging field, and it is never quiet!”
The trophy case in the school lobby speaks loudly, too. All Saints Robotics has already earned the Design Award for documented engineering design, the Excellence Award for overall excellence in both design and competition, and the Judges Award for being exceptional in a specific way noteworthy by the competition judges.
“When the awards started showing up, and other students could see all the smiles at our morning prayer student assembly, more students wanted to join,” said Casey. “I wasn’t really surprised by the excitement around robotics. It is new and challenging. It is predominantly a high school league, which is exciting for middle school students to be involved in.”
What did surprise Casey, the staff, and parent volunteers was the influx of girls.
“I was excited by the number of girls interested in robotics,” said Casey. “Once students get to high school, there tends to be a sharp decrease in female participation in elected STEM subjects like robotics. There is even less involvement in college. This may partly be due to peer pressure. Also, if girls are not encouraged in the younger grades and at home, they may be less apt to get involved in high school. What we found at All Saints was that the younger girls were very, very interested in robotics.”
In fact, since last year, All Saints has been able to field a “Girl Power” competition team.
“In high schools, most robotics teams are about 20% girls, and those numbers carry over into the computer science and engineering fields in many places,” said Michael. “Programs like this can really increase the participation of girls and help even the numbers out.”
“It’s building a lot of confidence in Sophia, especially as a girl,” said Jessica Ward, Sophia’s mom. “We think it’s important that she can pursue these types of fields for work because you don’t see a lot of girls in these fields right now and it’s great to see a big push in society encouraging them to get involved.”
The success of the robotics team has carried over into the classroom as well.
“Ever since Sophia has been in robotics, it’s been amazing,” said Jessica. “She struggled in math here and there but since she’s joined robotics whatever it has done to her technical way of thinking, math is much easier for her. We attribute it to the robotics program because it’s making you learn different problem-solving techniques.”
“It has helped me in math, especially with angles, because you have to measure angles for the robot to work,” said Sophia.
“Students that are using the educational robots are learning computer science principles, such as algorithmic thinking and programming,” said Casey. “Students that are on the robotics teams are learning teamwork, time management, programming, engineering principles, and the basics of the engineering design process. They have the opportunity to bring math and physics principles into design and competition in ways that are exciting and meaningful.”
As the robotics team has grown, technology at All Saints has followed suit. In the last year, 10 projectors and whiteboards have been installed; 50 Edison Robots have been obtained and integrated into math and science lessons from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade; three 3D printers have been donated, including two from the Perloff Foundation; and additional grant-funded projects are currently being developed and submitted.
“This brings computer science into the classroom as an integrated subject with core subjects,” said Casey. “There has already been an expressed interest in beginning a robotics ‘club’ at All Saints for the younger students.”
“Technology is brought directly into the classroom and into the core lessons. It isn’t taught as a separate subject but rather to deepen the understanding of core subjects,” said Houghton. “Our students are being introduced to technology and robotics in pre-kindergarten and, subsequently, excel in higher-order thinking and problem-solving. The opportunity to present the concept of confronting a problem, utilizing technology, and working things out at such a young age is priceless. We are blessed.”
On Fridays, there are no sports practices at All Saints so students can be part of the robotics team while not conflicting with sports schedules.
“Robotic set us apart from the other schools in our area,” said Houghton. “We are looking for ways to start a robotics club at the K-5 level as so many students have expressed an interest in joining.”
Observers from outside the school are seeing the clear benefits of the program as well.
“This year, members of the John Bapst Robotics Team have come to All Saints for our weekly Friday practice to serve as mentors,” said Casey. “This is shaping up to be a wonderful peer mentoring model, where students are learning from students. The high-school students are also being given the opportunity to serve in a very meaningful way and to grow in self-confidence. I am really excited about this development.”
In just two years, All Saints has established a successful robotics team and become an area leader in technology and STEM education but, more importantly, they are offering local students unique and potentially life-changing opportunities.
“I hope that their participation opens doors of interest and experience that they wouldn’t have even thought about otherwise,” said Casey. “I hope each student grows in their ability to work collaboratively on a team, because this is a lifelong skill to have and, yes, eventually, I hope we can bring a team to the VEX World Championship.”
Perhaps, in the crowd, the next Shannon Murphy will be watching All Saints Robotics from the stands and, with confidence, will know that she could be next.