SPARTA, NJ – Sparta Middle School was the site of the First Lego League competition late last month.  Students from Helen Morgan School joined elementary and middle school teams from the region participating the event hosted by Newton High School’s Robotics Team. 

The eight boys on the Helen Morgan team finished in eighth place with 208 points.  They were the only fifth grade team competing against teams of sixth, seventh and eighth grade students.

"Every one of the coaches, mentors, volunteers and students who participated were winners today," Newton High School robotics coach and technology teacher James Hofmann said. "Our engineering base here in Sussex County is so vast."

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Helen Morgan principal Doug Layman was at the competition with the students along with their coach Will Purnell and parent volunteer Jennifer Papaganeres. 

Papaganeres said, “They did a wonderful job.  They loved working with the robot and coding.  It would be good to see them continue in middle school."

The team also presented their experience at the Sparta Board of Education November meeting. The boys gave Superintendent Michael Rossi a team shirt.

“It was about the learning experience,” Purnell said.  “Leaning how to work as a team, working through the challenge.  I’m so proud of them.  I hope they had a good time.”

The boys agreed “the best part was running the robots,” though one team member did say the best part was explaining their project.

Layman introduced the team members at the meeting:

  • Alex Fido,
  • Rowan Henrie,
  • Logan Johnson,
  • Brendon Knapp,
  • Henry Masterson,
  • Rylan Pap,
  • Jack Smith and
  • Nate Stoddard.

Competition day was a series of missions teams had to work through, scoring as many points as possible as part of this year’s “City Shaper” challenge.

Teams met with different pairs of judges through the morning to earn points.  They explained their robot design in the Robot Design Room, worked through a challenge that called for team work in the Core Values room and explained their unique City Shaper solution in the Innovation Project room.

“The judges were a lot nicer than I originally expected,” Masterson said.  “They congratulated us when we were done.”

Rich Holder and Harvey Fein were two of the team of volunteer judges.  Holder from Newton has been judging for three years and it was Fein of Branchville’s first year. 

“There is a lot of work involved for three months,” Fein said.  Both agreed it was a great experience and would continue to volunteer as long as they are asked.

Each competing team had to identify a problem in their community and develop a solution.  The Sparta team proposed a system of lighted strips for the side of the road to alert pedestrians to approaching speeding vehicles.  They said the lights would turn yellow or red depending on how much the vehicle was over the speed limit.

“I think our presentation went smoothly,” Henrie said.  “Better than we practiced.”

Other teams’ projects tackled issues including recycling, homelessness, building an environmentally efficient mall with a recreation center, Lake Hopatcong algae bloom and two different pollution solutions.  “There were no overlaps,” Holder said.

After lunch the robots got to work on the 4-by-8-foot tables or game fields set up in the gym.  Teams had two and a half minutes to complete as many missions as possible on the game field. They scored as many points as they could through three rounds of matches to make it to the top of the scoreboard.

The event included a competition for most donations brought to the competition for the benefit of Manna House in Newton, whose mission is "feeding the homeless, elderly, mentally ill, the lonely, the poor, ...and those who fall through the cracks for public assistance," according to Hofmann.

Green Hills School FLL Team #28805 won the award for collecting the most items for Manna House. They brought everything on the suggested list. Hofmann said they collected a full trailer of food for Manna House.

Event coordinator Hofmann said the Newton teams Green Hills School #28805 and Juggernauts #44414 advanced to compete at Mount Olive.

Hofmann said the event was made possible by volunteers including judges and Mark Meola the Sparta High School robotics coach.  Meola provided a crew of Sparta High School Robotics team members who ran the concessions for the day-long event. This is the fourth year the competition has taken place in Sparta Middle School.

FLL is a global robotics competition where students ranging from fourth to eighth grades design, build and program robots out of Legos to complete several missions for the game using Lego Mindstorms, Lego NXT and Lego EV3 technology. Currently, there are more than 40,000 teams registered across the globe, according to Hofmann.