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

Moira Cullings

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: From Columbine to Christ: “Not only did God lead me out of Columbine, he was leading me to himself.”

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Every school day for almost two years, Jenica Thornby would spend her lunch hour in the library at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Every day, except April 20, 1999.

“I was sitting in my art class when all of the sudden I had this urge to leave school. I remember thinking, there is no way I am going to be talked into staying.”

Thornby found her friend that she always studied with and talked her into leaving too. As they drove away in a car her father had bought her just a week earlier, behind them they saw hundreds of other students running out of the school. Thinking it was maybe a fire drill, Thornby kept driving.

Back inside the school, two students had entered with guns, where they would kill 12 students and a teacher, and wound over 20 more people before taking their own lives.

In the days that followed, Thornby would learn that many of the casualties took place in the library, where on any other day she would have been sitting.

“I remember thinking, I always went to the library, and the only reason I wasn’t there was because I had this urge to leave. That was really hard to wrap my mind around, and so I really wondered, ‘What gave me that urge, why wasn’t I there?’”

Two decades later, Thornby is now Sister Mary Gianna, a religious sister of the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, and on the 20th Anniversary of the Columbine massacre, she shared her story with the Denver Catholic of how God led her out of her high school that day, and through a series of events, led her into a deep relationship with Christ.

Sr. Mary Gianna DLJC poses for a portrait at the Columbine Memorial on April 18, 2019, in Littleton, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

SEARCHING FOR FULFILMENT

Sister Mary Gianna said growing up in Texas, California and then Colorado, she had loving parents, but as a family they did not practice any religion or faith.

After the school shooting, like many of her classmates, Sister Mary Gianna struggled coming to grips with what had happened. Coupled with emotional scars from bullying in her teenage years and other insecurities, she said she tried desperately just to fit in.

“I started drinking and going to parties, thinking if I was in a relationship, then I’ll be happy,” Sister Mary Gianna recalled. “I was searching for fulfilment.”

But near the end of her junior year a classmate of hers who seemingly had everything going for him committed suicide, and Sister Mary Gianna said her senior year she hit rock bottom.

“If he was in so much pain and suffering and took his life, what do I do with all my suffering and all my pain?” Sister Mary Gianna said she asked herself. “I thought I was going to take my own life by my 18th birthday.”

It was that year that a friend invited her to come to a youth group at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church, where Sister Mary would meet a youth minister named Kate.

“I remember seeing something different in (Kate),” said Sister Mary Gianna. “She was so bright, so full of life. I could tell that she had something in her life that was missing in mine.”

Sister Mary Gianna said Kate and the youth group introduced her to a God that loved her, and that had a plan for her life.

“I felt like I was junk to be thrown away, and (Kate) would tell me you are made in God’s image and his likeness, and if God created you, how can you call yourself junk?” recalled Sister Mary Gianna. “I realized God did have a plan, and I love the words of St. Augustine: ‘Our hearts are restless until they rest in God,” and I realized not only did God lead me out of Columbine, he was leading me to himself.”

RCIA, NET and DLJC

After high school graduation, with the support of her parents Sister Mary Gianna chose to attend Franciscan University of Steubenville, where her freshman year she went through RCIA and was received into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil of 2002.

After college, she spent a year with NET (National Evangelization Team), sharing her testimony with teenagers across the country. At the same time, through the encouragement of others, she began to consider religious life.

“I felt God wanted to use me to lead others to Christ as my youth minister had led me to Christ,” said Sister Mary Gianna. “And I felt God was calling me to share how he had worked in my life, my personal testimony.”

Sister Mary Gianna said words in a book by Father Benedict Groeschel really impacted her.

“He wrote, ‘Instead of asking God why something happened, ask him, what would you have me do?’” Sister Mary Gianna said. “So instead of reflecting on my life and why did this happen or that happen, I began to ask God, ‘What would you have me do?’”

In 2010, Jenica Thornby entered religious life as a member of the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, was given the name Sister Mary Gianna, and last year on August 4, 2018, took her final vows. She now serves at The Ark and The Dove retreat center in Pittsburgh.

CHAIN REACTIONS

Standing in the center of the Columbine Memorial at Clement Park, Sister Mary Gianna is drawn to the plaque that remembers Rachel Joy Scott.

Sr. Mary Gianna DLJC poses for a portrait at the Columbine Memorial on April 18, 2019, in Littleton, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

Rachel was one of the first students shot on April 20, 1999, and after being wounded, one of the gunmen reportedly asked her if she still believed in God, to which Rachel replied, “You know I do,” before the gunman shot her in the head.

“Unfortunately the two boys talked about how they wanted to start a chain reaction of death and violence and destruction,” Sister Mary Gianna said. “However, Rachel had a theory that if one person could go out of their way and show compassion and kindness, we would never know how far it would go, it just might start its own chain reaction.”

Sister Mary Gianna said Rachel’s story has become an inspiration to her, and coincidently, Rachel’s family played a role in her own conversion. Sister Mary Gianna said the day after the shooting she was at a friend’s house and her friend’s mom told Rachel’s aunt about how she had left just before the shooting began. Sister Mary Gianna said Rachel’s aunt replied, “God must have a plan for your life.”

It was one of the first seeds planted in Sister Mary Gianna’s heart, that started to grow, and as Sister Mary Gianna continued to say ‘yes’ to God, led her to the life she has today.

“Even when I didn’t know God that day at Columbine, he led me out of school, he protected me,” said Sister Mary Gianna. “He loved me so much that he drew near to me and has shown me this path of life.”

“Even in the midst of tragedy, God can bring good, God could bring life out of death. The worst tragedy was Jesus being put to death on the Cross, and it led to our salvation. And even in the midst of this tragedy of Columbine, God could bring good.”