A team of eight students from Orchard Hills Elementary School competed in the Connecticut FIRST Lego League Championships in Shelton this past weekend.

The team did well, school officials said. They finished 9th out of 48 teams in a robot competition.

The team earned a spot at the state-level event that took place this past Sunday after filing a top performance at the qualifying event held in mid-November at the Elm City Robo Fest in New Haven. The students have been working together since July.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is a non-profit organization that aspires to transform culture by making science, math, engineering and technology ‘cool.’

Several programs are conducted under the FIRST ‘umbrella’ – including the FIRST Lego League, intended for students in grades 4 – 8 working in teams of up to 10 students. Students at this level are asked to build and then work with a small Lego robot that they learn to program. The robot is expected to accomplish a series of tasks during a robot game. The robot may have to push a door open, press a button, swing to the side, insert a key into a slot, or collect spring-type loops – among many other tasks. All movements and sequences must be precise – and the students, themselves, must figure out how to make the robot achieve the objectives.

In addition to robotic tasks, the students conduct a research project in answer to an annual question. This year’s assignment asked students to “improve the way people learn about” any topic they chose. The Orchard Hills team decided to pursue the world of astronomy and used their research to propose an electronic game that would help kids learn about stars, constellations, and the universe more easily. The research project is presented as a skit, involving all members of the team.

Parent organizers Loriann and Kristopher Seluga, both MIT graduates, had been searching for an activity they could integrate into the school setting that incorporated facets of technology, math and engineering – while still being considered fun for kids. Kristopher came across the FIRST Lego League materials online and believed this could provide a match. They, along with their children, went to an exhibition in Stamford, thought the event was fantastic, but noticed there were no teams from Milford. They presented a proposal to the Orchard Hills PTA to start a team and received overwhelming support.

Students attend the program after school once a week and, after having a healthy snack, they get to work. Some work on the computer to refine their programming techniques, some work on research for their project presentation, and some handle the robot as they test their new calculations. The startup cost of the program was $1,200 – but Loriann explained that some of the costs have been underwritten by the school’s PTA. In future years, the robot kit will be reused and the annual cost will be less than $500.

At the qualifying round in November, the Orchard Hills squad — named the Masterminds — competed against eight other teams in the region. The team was awarded the Champion’s Award – the top prize in the tournament – which puts equal weight on the robot’s design, research project, and teamwork. They also received the Robot Performance Award at the event. These awards made the team eligible for the CT FIRST Lego League Championships that was held this weekend at Shelton High School.

Loriann Seluga was pleased with the first year run for the Masterminds and hopes to see more STEM opportunities for students in the school district.

“We would love to see more First Lego League teams in Milford and would be happy to help anyone interested in starting a team,” she said. “Watching the students try potential solutions, learn and adapt, and then see their pride when they resolve a challenging task is such a rewarding experience.”

Dr. Elizabeth Feser, superintendent of schools, visited the students during one of their practice runs in mid-November and was pleased to see this project in action. “It is so exciting to see students engaged in problem solving that demands the integration of math, science, engineering and technology. That the students had to utilize public speaking skills is powerful as well. I thank Mr. and Mrs. Seluga for organizing this activity and coaching the team of students. The time and guidance they gave to the team made the difference. I thank also the Orchard Hills PTA for helping to finance the program.”