VALRICO — For 10 middle school children in Valrico, it’s their shining moment, an invitation to represent the Greater Brandon area and the nation’s eighth largest public school district at the FIRST LEGO League World Class Open Invitational Championship in Arkansas.
The Mustechs of Mulrennann Middle School — named for the school’s mascot, the mustang, and the club’s technology focus — are set to travel to the University of Arkansas for the FLL Razorback Invitational, May 14-17. It’s one of four such world-class championships scheduled through July, the others being in Australia, California and South Africa.
“They’re the first team in [the School District of] Hillsborough County to advance to the finals,” according to Mark Roberts, teacher sponsor for the Mustechs. “They’ll be there with kids from India, South Africa, Korea and many more countries.”
“I am super-excited about this because we know that we have some excellent coaches and teams here in our school district and it’s nice for the Mustechs to be chosen to represent the state of Florida at the world invitational,” said Desh Bagley, founder and owner of TechPlayzone in Riverview. She also is the outreach manger for the Florida Advanced Technological Education Center (FLATE) at Hillsborough Community College, which is providing the Mustechs with team T-shirts.
The Mustechs story started six years ago, when parent coach Patrick Stanley took his children to an engineering exposition at the University of South Florida. An engineer by trade, he said he wanted to expose his kids to “some exciting things about engineering.”
There, he became acquainted with the FIRST LEGO League, which aims to advance robotics competitions as the ultimate “sport of the mind.” Stanley had a ready ear when he approached Mulrennan principal Tim Ducker about starting a team there. Roberts agreed to sponsor the club and the team launched five years ago.
Stanley has been coaching ever since – three years with his child, Will, on the team, and now with his daughter, Olivia, and her teammates.
“It’s an awesome program for the kids,” he said. “It teaches them problem-solving skills and it teaches them if you don’t get things right the first time you test it, modify it and do it again. And if you get it right, you run it again, because even if it works a first time it might not work a second time.”
That’s exactly what the team did in engineering a product that met the specifications for this year’s challenge and topic — “world-class education.” The team conducted in-field research, visiting parent coach Bob Sippel’s wife, Sheryl, at the Dale Mabry campus of Hillsborough Community College, where she serves as program manager of mathematics.
“They asked me, how do you use technology in education and what kind of problems do you have, and I talked to them about distance-learning classes, how they’ve expanded dramatically, and online testing,” Sheryl Sippel said.
She demonstrated a smart pen in use that records what’s written and what’s spoken and requires special paper, Stanley said, “but that they can’t use for testing because you don’t know who’s doing the writing.” Also, it restricts teachers to multiple-choice testing, which doesn’t help them see how a student arrives at an answer — the steps involved — and whether that student has trouble with a concept or merely missed some simple steps in arithmetic.
After conducting further research, the Mustechs learned of a biometric smart pen in development at a technical university in Germany, which can be used to recognize “the force, velocity and motion of the way a person holds a pen and writes,” Stanley said. “They thought, wouldn’t it be nice if there were some way to use a smart pen and know who was using it.”
For their project, the Mustechs added features to the smart pen, including a Bluetooth interface; space for a memory card; a fisheye lens with video camera; and a microphone, to ensure “no one is phoning in the answers,” Stanley said.
The Mulrennan Mustechs seek to offset the cost of their trip to Arkansas, which Stanley said is around $14,000. On April 30, at the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s in Valrico, on State Road 60 near Miller Road, a fundraising “spirit night” is scheduled, from 5 to 9 p.m. Mustechs on May 2 are set to sell candy bars and Chick-fil-A cards at Publix, at the corner of Lithia Pinecrest Road and Bloomingdale Avenue. Corporate sponsors are sought and also individual donations, through a GoFundMe.com page.
For information and links, visit the Mustechs online at www.mustechs.com.