AYER -- The Space Cats fourth- and fifth-grade students of the Lego Robotics Club at Page Hilltop Elementary School have been working together only since October, but they are clearly a team.
They even have code names such as "Helmet" and "Captain Monster," because, as they said, it's a team thing.
Their synergy was in full swing during a recent after-school session as the students -- Aimee Sanchez, Sophia Angers, Leah Mohammed, Aneliese Eberle, Jaiya Valentin-Chase, Meleana Simion and Dumitru Simion -- put their Lego-built robot "Space Bob" through its paces.
With a state-wide competition coming up the next day in Worcester, the agenda on this Friday afternoon included practice, last-minute adjustments and fine-tuning Space Bob's routine.
But first came another task they had set for themselves.
While waiting for their teacher, Brian LaPointe, to join them (he was in a parent conference) the students drafted a letter to competition judges, nominating LaPointe for the event's Best Mentor award.
Parent-assistant Allison Chase helped them get started.
"Let's brainstorm," she said, "why is he a great coach?"
The students were full of ideas. Words came fast, like popcorn. A student wrote them on a whiteboard.
He's kind, patient, understanding, generous, helpful, a problem solver. When you make a mistake, he gives second chances. He's funny, tells jokes, even brings in food. Basically, he loves doing this.
In fact, LaPointe brought the First Robotics Lego League to the district several years ago and later established a First Robotics Lego Robotics Jr. program at Page Hilltop.
"The district has very high participation. And it has grown every year," Chase said, with 12 percent of all students in grades 4-12 participating in a robotics team.
Regrouped at super-sized tables in the cafeteria, the team had enough Lego blocks, parts and pieces on hand to build a small city. Bins, boxes, shelves of multi-colored Legos in varied shapes and sizes.
The custom-patterned mats and Lego structures they'd assembled for battery-powered Space Bob to work with and maneuver through at the competition would be duplicated at WPI, the students said. So basically the only specialized equipment the team would transport from here to there was the robot.
The Space Cats also have a student coach: Eris McCubbin, a 10th-grader and member of the Ayer Shirley Regional High School "Andromeda One" Robotics Club.
Having chosen space as their theme, the group tackled a series of challenges set out in program guides, complete with diagrams and a glossary of terms. The educational to-do list incorporates core values, research, problem-solving, layout design and team work. Building the robot comes last, they said.
Space Bob came from a kit, but builders could add parts to the basics for a purposeful DIY project.