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Overton’s FIRST Lego League Team heads to state competition

SALISBURY — In an after-school program, fourth- and fifth-graders at Overton Elementary School are learning about coding, design, core values and teamwork.

The FIRST Lego League Team is now in its second year. Overton competed with two teams, Jedi Builders, coached by Jessica Tucker, and Darth Builders, coached by Jessica Cash.

At the beginning of the school year, the teams are given a problem. This year’s was called City Shaper, and the object was to find a building or public space and create an innovative use for it. The students also have to code a program to operate a robot to complete missions.

Throughout the project, the teams were asked to showcase core values, including discovery, inclusion, teamwork, innovation, fun and impact.

The Jedi Builders is headed to the state competition on Jan. 19 at N.C. A&T State University. The FIRST Lego League Team is for grades four through eight.

Student Olivia Austin said students in the next month will need to practice and learn how to operate the robot to increase their teamwork score.

For the innovative project, the teams identified buildings in the city to come up with designs for repurposing. The Jedi Builders picked 215 E. Innes St. and decided to give teenagers in the city something to do with a teen art center. The Darth Builders looked at 1820 W. Innes St. to transform it into a greenhouse and smash house.

“Every year, we have a project and this year was to make a plan of making a building look better in your town,” said Nicholas Eppehimer, of the Jedi Builders team. “There was this abandoned building that was the first thing you see when you come into Salisbury, so we decided to make it colorful and make it a teen art center.”

Student Elisha Shelton said teenagers are stressed from homework and projects and art could provide a way to relieve that stress.

“It can give you a place to go to relax and express yourself,” he said.

The groups met with staffers at the City Planning Office in August and presented their ideas.

City Planner Hannah Jacobson said they reviewed the project from the perspective of development professionals. The city staffers gave the students information about downtown incentive grants, historic preservation and transportation access, all things planners consider.

Student Anna Chamberlain was the designer of the teen art center. She decided to keep pieces of the original architecture, like the diamond design on the facade, to save historic aspects of the building.

The Jedi Builders also surveyed middle and high schoolers about who would be interested in coming to an art center. Team members asked what activities middle and high schoolers would like to have available, with cake decorating coming in at the top. They asked what age range it should cater to, which came to 10 to 19 years old. They also asked how people would get there.

“We wanted information about what the teens would want, and we’ve got to understand we’re not the only ones to decide,” Austin said. “We want Salisbury to decide; that way we know what they want.”

Cash said she especially enjoyed the project. Previous problems were related to outer space or water, but this had a local feel to it.

“This one is about what can we do for our community,” Cash said. “It got us out in the community and talking to people.”

Urban planner Alyssa Nelson said she imagines the students will begin looking at Salisbury differently and thinking about what empty buildings can become. 

The teams also provide a perspective on what young people would like to see in their city, she said.

“They offered creative, fun ideas that are specifically for kids,” Nelson said. “They highlighted they wanted more places to go in Salisbury. It’s worth listening to what do they want to see.”

Tucker said the innovation project is a design and engineering process at a whole other level. FIRST Lego League teams allow students to learn a lot, she said. Every year there is a learning curve, but it’s still fun, she said.

“It really is about what they do,” Tucker said. “We help them. We equip them.”

She is especially proud of the teams because they are competing against middle schoolers. The Darth Builders won a teamwork award because all played a role throughout the competition. 

Cash and Tucker said the success of the teams is a credit to the community.

Cash said the saying “It takes a village to raise a child” rings true.

“At Overton, we have an amazing village,” she said. “We have amazing parents. We have amazing teachers.”

Once the FIRST Lego League was announced last year, Tucker said, an anonymous donor funded the after-school program.

Tucker said she wants to give a “huge thank you to that person for investing in us in that capacity.”

This year, the teams picked up funding from F&M Bank and Freightliner, too.

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