Ahead of competition, Catholic school students look to the stars for inspiration

St. Mary sixth graders to represent Colorado at FIRST LEGO League world championship

Sixth grade students at St. Mary Catholic School in Littleton are giving NASA a run for its money.

The six boys that make up the Legit LEGO Lions, a team that participates in FIRST LEGO League, came up with a real-world solution to allow humans to live on Mars.

“I think it’s amazing that they can even conceive of such a thing,” said Chris Gemperline, team coach and Geotechnical Engineer at the Bureau of Reclamation.

The students had the opportunity to present their idea, along with other competition elements, in the state championship this past December, where they took first place, beating out more than 300 teams of fourth-eighth graders who had participated in 12 tournaments across the state this season.

The six boys who make up the Legit LEGO Lions earned a place at the FIRST world championship next month. Photo by Moira Cullings

Now, the team will head to the world championship in Houston from April 16-18.

“I’m really proud of our boys,” said Gemperline. “The fact that they’re representing our Catholic faith as scientists and engineers is priceless.”

Students discover ‘wonders’ of God’s creation

FIRST LEGO League is made up of 40,000 teams from around the world who, guided by adult coaches, “research a real-world problem such as food safety, recycling, energy, etc. and are challenged to develop a solution,” according to its website.

When it comes to competitions, each team is tasked with designing a LEGO robot that moves around on a table and completes tasks. Teams are judged on the robot game, project score and how well they practice six core values — discovery, fun, impact, inclusion, innovation and teamwork.

This season, the theme “INTO ORBIT” challenged the team to explore humanity’s relationship with space.

Inspired by Buzz Aldrin’s book “Welcome to Mars,” the Lions came up with a way to drop geophones into the surface of Mars in order to find caves where humans could survive while avoiding the radiation that is prominent on the planet.

The Legit LEGO Lions showed off their robot at St. Mary Catholic School’s Innovation Night on March 7. Photo by Daniel Petty

“I was astounded by the knowledge these students have gained and the conclusions they have drawn from their research,” said St. Mary Principal Jim Baker. “Without a doubt, they have a deeper appreciation of the entire universe our God has created.”

The boys also believe they now have the confidence and tools to create something innovative and helpful for society.

“I’ve learned inspiration is all it takes to create a reality and something new and credible,” said Luke Nepple.

For Brady Gemperline, this season’s success has been not only meaningful academically, but also spiritually.

“It helps us develop teamwork skills that really help us in life,” he said. “And I enjoy exploring God’s universe that he created for us to explore.”

Jonathan Alexander (left) and Peyton Gomez work with the team robot during St. Mary’s Innovation Night. Photo by Daniel Petty

According to Baker, that exploration goes hand-in-hand with the Catholic faith.

“Our Catholic tradition is steeped in a rich past of scientists and scientific discoveries,” said Baker. “Students get to experience firsthand the wonders one can create if they use all of the traits God has given us.

“This applies to all academic areas, including science and math,” he said.

‘Inspiration is all it takes’

Teamwork, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) development and community outreach are just a few reasons the boys participate in FIRST LEGO League.

“I’ve always liked engineering, and I thought this would be a great opportunity because it combines engineering and programming with fun stuff like Legos,” said Luke Nepple.

“My favorite part of LEGO League would probably be the teamwork and the fun we have together,” said Peyton Gomez. “These guys are my friends, so it’s really fun to work together.”

Brady Gemperline works with the team robot during Innovation Night. Photo by Daniel Petty

For Zach Kutsch, it’s the realistic ups and downs that make the practices and competitions exciting.

“It’s really enjoyable because it’s a lot of trial and error,” he said. “We have to do it over and over, and it’s really enjoyable when we finally finish the mission. It’s really fun when you finally hook one thing [and it works].”

Gemperline explained this type of learning is similar to what work is like in the real world, particularly in a STEM field.

“A lot of people get discouraged in school because they don’t do well in math or memorization of math facts,” said Gemperline. “So, I think when they do something like this, they realize it’s not just all memorization.

“They’re free to experiment and fail,” he said. “As long as they persevere, they know that they can do this amazing technical work. If they’re inspired to know they can do it, that’s the most important thing for me that they take away.”

The boys are confident the skills they continue to gain through FIRST will help them flourish in the classroom and beyond.

Coach Chris Gemperline (right), alongside Rowan Gemperline, guides his team during an exhibition Lego League match at the school. Photo by Daniel Petty

“We learn gracious professionalism,” said Gomez. “We try to engage with other teams as much as possible.”

“We also learn how to present really well,” said Brady. “And we have fun while doing it.”

As the Lions look forward to the world championship, they desire most importantly to have fun and continue to build a spirit of fellowship among teams across the competition.

Gemperline also hopes his team’s presence helps break the stereotype that Catholics don’t believe in science, technology and engineering.

“As a Catholic engineer, I’m constantly faced with that debate,” he said. “It’s just not true.

“I think it’s important when parents are choosing schools that they recognize that we place a high value on science, technology, engineering and math, as well as our Catholic faith.

“I think it’s a proud demonstration of the bright minds that we can generate from our school,” he said.

COMING UP: Collegiality and eucharistic integrity

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The concept of the “collegiality” of bishops has been sharply contested since the Second Vatican Council debated it in 1962, 1963, and 1964. That discussion was sufficiently contentious that a personal intervention from Pope Paul VI was required to incorporate the concept of episcopal collegiality within the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church in such a way that the pope’s primacy and universal jurisdiction were safeguarded. The debate about collegiality has continued ever since. Now, however, it’s focused more on what kind of collegiality exists within national conferences of bishops. Is it an “affective collegiality” of mutual support and encouragement? Or is episcopal collegiality within bishops’ conferences “effective,” such that a conference has real teaching and legislative authority?  

Whether collegiality is “affective,” “effective,” or some combination of the two, it ought to be clear what truly “collegial” behavior isn’t.   

It isn’t individual bishops attempting end-runs around their national conference, appealing for Roman interventions that would forestall debates that their brother bishops wish to engage. It isn’t bishops trying to browbeat the conference chairman into changing an agenda to suit the tastes of a distinct minority — and misleading their brother bishops as to what they’re about when soliciting support for such a gambit. And it isn’t trying to filibuster a conference meeting so that no action is possible on an agenda item that the great majority of bishops wish to consider and act upon. 

If any of those three maneuvers qualifies as collegial, then “collegiality” has no more meaning than the claim that my poor Baltimore Orioles have a great starting rotation. 

For years now — and by “years,” I mean long before the idea of a “President Biden” entered the stream of national consciousness — the bishops of the United States have been concerned that ours is becoming less of a eucharistic Church than Vatican II called us to be when it taught that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Church’s life. Pope St. John Paul II reaffirmed that conciliar summons when, in his final encyclical, he taught that “the Church draws her life from the Eucharist,” which “recapitulates the heart and mystery of the Church.” Yet all around us we see declining Sunday Mass attendance: a sadness that preceded the pandemic but has been further exacerbated by it.  Moreover, surveys suggest that too many Catholics think of Sunday Mass as essentially a social occasion, rather than an encounter with the living God in which Christ is offered to the Father and is given back to his people in holy communion — a communion in and through the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ, received under the forms of bread and wine.

If the Church lives from the Eucharist and yet the people of the Church don’t participate in the Eucharist as often as they should, or don’t understand what they’re celebrating and receiving when they do, then the Church suffers from a serious eucharistic deficit. Those ordained to leadership in the Church are obliged to do something about that. 

That is why the U.S. bishops have been determined for some time to undertake a comprehensive program of eucharistic education throughout the Church. For the great majority of bishops, that determination has been intensified by the fact that our eucharistic deficit is being compounded by the eucharistic incoherence of public officials who, rejecting authoritative Catholic teaching based on both revelation and reason, nonetheless present themselves for holy communion as if they were in full communion with the Church. The longstanding episcopal failure to address this incoherence exacerbates the eucharistic deficit in American Catholicism by implying that the Church really doesn’t mean what it teaches about the sacred nature of the Eucharist. 

Those suggesting that this is all about “politics” are either ill-informed or deliberately misleading the Church and the gullible parts of the media. Concern for the eucharistic integrity of the Church includes, but goes much deeper than, concerns about the eucharistic incoherence of Catholic public officials who act as if the Church’s settled convictions on the life issues and on worthiness to receive holy communion don’t exist. That is why the U.S. bishops are forging ahead with developing a teaching document that will clarify for the whole Church why we are a Eucharistic community, what the Eucharist truly is, what reception of the Eucharist means, and why everyone in the Church should examine conscience before receiving Christ in the sacrament. 

The wheels of collegiality may grind slowly. In this case, however, they are grinding truly, and for the sake of the Gospel.

George Weigel is an independent columnist whose weekly column is syndicated by the Archdiocese of Denver. The opinions and viewpoints expressed by Mr. Weigel therein are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the Archdiocese of Denver or the bishops of Denver.