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: Denver mayor surprises Catholic school students for Black History Month presentation

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On Monday, February 24, Christ the King Roman Catholic School in Denver held their first Black History Month celebration, and among the special guests was the Denver’s own Mayor Michael Hancock.

The celebration began with the surprise visit of Mayor Hancock, who addressed the students and spoke about the importance of the African American community in our society and remembered those who have made history and impacted our lives.

“I want us all to remember very clearly that this world, our society, has been created by so many people of different colors, races, religions, and we all depend on one another,” Mayor Hancock told the crowd. “Even when we don’t think about it, we’re depending on the inventions and discoveries of people who don’t look like us…Black history Month should also be about celebrating the cultures of history of all people that made this society great.”

After the Mayor’s speech, Kateri Williams, Director of the Office of Black Catholic Ministry at the Archdiocese of Denver shared her testimony about how she was born and raised Catholic and the impact her faith has had throughout her life.

Mayor Michael Hancock surprised students at Christ the King Catholic School, in Denver Feb. 24 during a presentation on Black History Month. (Photos by Brandon Ortega)

“It’s important that we don’t celebrate in just the month of February or Black Catholic History Month in November, but throughout the entire year,” Williams said. “It’s also important to remember, as Pope Francis has shared, that unity and diversity is something we should have a joyful celebration about. It’s not our differences that we should be focused on, but our unity in our Lord Jesus Christ, that brings us all together and we should bring all of those gifts from all of our ethnic communities together as the one universal Catholic Church.”

As part of the Black History Month celebration at Christ The King, the school held several events during the entire week of February 24, including a basketball game to honor the athlete Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna, who were killed with seven others in a helicopter accident back in January. Before the fatal crash, Bryant, a Catholic, was seen praying at his local parish.

“The purpose is to bring focus to the contribution that the Catholic Church has [had] with black history,” said Sandra Moss, Teachers and Preschool Assistant at Christ the King Catholic School. “I want students to know Black history is American history. It’s not just about the color of your skin. It’s not about the negativity that is occurring everywhere in the world. I wanted them to see the good side of it… Black history is American history.”