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Catholic schools’ robotics competition powers young minds

The robots wheeled around Sunday afternoon, launching orange plastic balls into a goal, dropping them over a barrier and knocking them off a ramp.

With the successful completion of each task, the robots’ young creators racked up points at the second XSTREAM Games and Expo of the Buffalo diocese Catholic schools. But, more importantly, they continued to rack up valuable experience in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math, which the diocese has integrated with religion and art for its STREAM initiative.

The 32 teams of grammar school students since September have been designing and testing their remote-controlled robots in anticipation of Sunday’s games before 900 people in St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute in the Town of Tonawanda. They used tiny motors to power the wheels, conveyor belts and vacuums to complete tasks.

Vincenzo Ciffa, 13, an 8th grader at St. Stephen School on Grand Island, wasn’t happy with the performance of his team’s robot.

“It would get stuck and a part would fall off in the intake, so it wouldn’t suck up the ball properly and it would get stuck at the end,” he said.

But Vincenzo’s teacher, Carol Buchholz, said that kind of trial-and-error is exactly the point of the games.

“They’re so used to having instant gratification, getting it done,” she said of her students. “And they’re learning now, ‘Maybe I should have a concept, draw it, try it. If it doesn’t work, go back to the drawing board.’ ”

In the end, it was combined teams from St. Andrew’s Country Day School in Kenmore and Nativity of Our Lord in Orchard Park in the final round that captured first place in the games’ robotics competition by a single point. But STREAM and the games that highlight it are more about fostering collaboration and less about competition.

“What I love is that this initiative runs parallel to the revitalization of Buffalo and our desire to want go in the direction that our city’s going to prepare our kids for their future here,” said Jean Comer, education initiative coordinator for the Diocese of Buffalo.

Comer said interest in the STEM fields peaks between ages 9 and 14.

“That’s us here,” she said. “Someone doesn’t suddenly become interested in chemistry when they’re 17. A lot of times it’s rooted in experiences they had in middle school or younger.”

In addition to the robotics competition, students displayed catapults and bottle launchers and engaged in “science scrimmages.” Students judged by winners of the 43North business plan competition pitched their inventions as in the TV show “Shark Tank.” And kitchen chemistry was at work during a cook-off judged by the Niagara Falls Culinary Institute.

Vincenzo’s parents, Vince and JoAnn, were proud of their son, who deconstructs electronics such as computers in his room.

“Anything he can break down, take apart six different ways, he’ll be engulfed in it for hours, weekends and days,” said Vince. “This is just a different platform than a soccer field or a football field. It’s the new field.”