Indian Mills ‘Little Devils’ learn life skills through robots

The combination of engineering, design and technology proved to provide vital life skills for seven Shamong youngsters.

The Indian Mills ‘Little Devils’ robotics team is in its rookie year and has already won competitions and learned life skills within a few short months (Kim Condurso/Special to The Sun).

A robot does not have inherent emotions, but it did teach the fourth through sixth graders of Little Devils robotics Club life skills as the group won a competition Jan. 11 in its inaugural year.

The unaffiliated Little Devils Club comprises students from the Shamong School District.  Advisors are Michael and Kim Condurso, teachers at Lenape High School. Students in the club include Nick Condurso, Caleb Martins, Noah McNicholl, Zach Zehnder and Luke Sharrott.

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The team convenes every week at the Condurso home and the students figure out ways to have their robot complete tasks. The name was created by students as a stepping stone to the Seneca-Shawnee FTC (FIRST Tech Challenge) team, the Iron Devils.

The Little Devils compete in the FIRST Lego League (FLL) against other teams in the area. The recent competition win at Moorestown’s Upper Elementary School earlier this month  led the team to Rowan University, where they will compete again Feb. 29.

FIRST is a non-profit robotics community promoting engineering and technology in students from preschool to high school.

The kids would want to win, but we wanted to de-emphasize that,” Kim Condurso noted. “We tell the team to look at where they started. Some of the kids didn’t know about robots or coding, and the fact that we had no expectations of moving on, we’re quite surprised and our calendar was not prepared for it.

Kim and her husband want to start an FLL team because their son, Nick, grew increasingly involved with robots and wanted to work with them in some capacity. The family geared up to start the club in their living room.

The seven Little Devils members weren’t taught engineering outright. Educators broke down the concepts of the subject to the team and instructed one member to be blindfolded, as two others verbally indicated where that member should go.

Any time you had to tell a robot to do something, you had to code it,” Michael explained. “There’s no inherent knowledge on it. ‘Can you go get me a glass?’ (Kids) know to go to the kitchen for it, but the robot won’t, as it doesn’t have inherent information.

The engineering lessons concluded as the kids dove into coding the robot to make it perform specific actions. But Lego made the process easy with Mindstorms, a program with drag-and-drop functions to code a robot.

With each tweak a member made — and the shift in the center of mass — the team picked up communication skills useful during the competition.

The Little Devils had to solve missions during the competition and each completion earned them points. As their robot left and returned to its starting point, Michael saw the boys become more passionate about what they were doing and exemplified FIRST’s core values — discovery, inclusion, teamwork, fun and innovation.

The club members created poster boards displaying values and another articulating how  those values come into play in solving a real problem with a theoretical solution. The club’s problem was forest fires, and the students devised a solution of having infrared cameras pitched on fire towers to detect the start of a blaze.

The Condursos, the team and parent Brendan McNicholl all agreed the Little Devils learned vital life skills leading up to the competition that were handy during classroom lessons or homework.

(Noah McNicholl) just had a book report due and a year ago, you’d have to pull the information out of him. Now he fires off information. He was like, ‘What about this? Can we tinker with that? Change this font? That font?’”

Members said the club has made it easier for them to do presentations in class with confidence.

Kim said the Little Devils will be at Family Science night Feb. 5, from 6 to 8 p.m., at Indian Mills Elementary School to make others aware of their team and to show parents they can start a FIRST team on their own.

The Condursos hope to eventually have enough teams in Shamong for them to host scrimmages against one another, to host joint meetings and to spread knowledge of how the club affected her son and his teammates.

Not all of the team members knew one another, and by the time they got to the competition, they were so excited and exclaiming they were best friends and everything,” Michael said, obviously impressed.

“It was great to see them perform together and work as a team.

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