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: Why stay in the Church?

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There are many people who have either left the Church or are currently considering leaving because of the scandals of recent decades. We have felt pain and righteous anger at our leaders and have suffered scandal from their betrayal. For some, the grand jury reports and lack of accountability for bishops have been the last straw. It’s hard to blame people for feeling this way, but we have to ask with Peter, “to whom, Lord, shall we go?” (John 6:68).

Significantly, this question comes after many disciples walked out on Jesus for his teaching on the Eucharist, and it is the Eucharist that should be at the center of any response to the crisis. Peter answers his own question: “you have the words of everlasting life” (John 6:68). The Church is Jesus’ own body in the world, and we are members of his mystical body, given eternal life by consuming his own flesh at Mass. Without the Eucharist, Jesus’ presence in the flesh, the very heart of the Church, where would we be?

Bishop Robert Barron echoes Peter’s question in a recent pamphlet-style book, with over a million copies in print, Letter to a Suffering Church: A Bishop Speaks on the Sexual Abuse Crisis (Word on Fire, 2019). He turns to the Bible and Church history to look for perspective on the crisis. Because of the centrality of the Eucharist in the Church, the betrayal of some of our priests and bishops takes on greater significance. They act in persona Christi at Mass, offering the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross to the Father, and we depend on them for our sacramental life.

Fortunately, the validity of the sacraments does not depend upon the sinlessness of priests, but rather the holiness of God. Barron points out, however, that priests will not get off easy, given the extremely harsh words that Jesus offers to those who lead children astray: “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me;  but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,  it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the man by whom the temptation comes!” (Mt 18:7-9). Barron also references the punishment of Eli, in 1 Samuel 2-4, who as priest and judge of Israel watched his own sons, who were also priests, abuse the people. Barron argues that this scene gives us the best example of God’s retribution for allowing abuse to happen and not correcting it.

Barron also looks at the tumultuous story of Church history for context on the current crisis. Although the Church is the mystical body of Christ, he references St. Paul assertion that we bear our treasure in earthen vessels, as evidenced by the human weakness of Christians throughout history. In fact, this weakness manifests the Lord’s grace guiding and preserving the Church in spite of us. Barron quotes Belloc that a proof of the Church’s divine foundation “might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight” (43). Heresies, sinful popes, and sexual perversity have not fundamentally destroyed the Lord’s work, even if they have turned many people away. God has promised to remain with his Church and his providence will guide us especially through dark moments.

The crisis challenges us and raises the question of why we are Catholic. Most of us have been born Catholic and may take our faith for granted as something we’ve inherited from our parents. We may view belonging to the Church like membership in a voluntary organization. Rather, our life as members of Christ’s Body is a gift from God that changes our identity and unites us to God and our fellow Christians. As we experience challenges to faith, it is an opportunity to embrace this identity even more strongly — not as something that depends upon myself or anyone else in the Church, but on God. We go to Church to honor and thank him and to receive his grace, not to be a part of a human organization.

The Church is a family, called together by God, but, like any family, we experience pain from our own and each other’s sinfulness. As family, we can’t give up on each other, but have to “stay and fight” as Barron exhorts us, helping each other to be faithful to the mission that Jesus gave us: to love one another as he has loved us and to share the Good News of his salvation.

Featured Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash