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Leon Sheffield Elementary School students Cory King, left, Mark Hay, Cooper Wright and Sean Sears work through last-minute details before the judges arrive at Saturday's Alabama Council on Technology competition at Auburn University in Montgomery. Their team won the state championship.
Daily photo by Eric Fleischauer
Leon Sheffield Elementary School students Cory King, left, Mark Hay, Cooper Wright and Sean Sears work through last-minute details before the judges arrive at Saturday's Alabama Council on Technology competition at Auburn University in Montgomery. Their team won the state championship.

Top-notch in technology
Decatur students soar in state competition

By Eric Fleischauer
eric@decaturdaily.com 340-2435

Decatur elementary and middle school students had an in-your-face response Saturday to any who doubt the excellence of Decatur City Schools. The response came in the form of trophies carted off from the Alabama Council on Technology Education competition at Auburn University in Montgomery:

  • The state's best grade 3-4 robotics team is from Leon Sheffield Elementary.

  • The state's best grade 3-4 information technology student is from Leon Sheffield.

  • The state's best grade 5-6 robotics team is from Cedar Ridge Middle School.

  • The state's best grade 5-6 information technology student is from Cedar Ridge.

  • The state's best grade 7-8 information technology student is from Cedar Ridge.

    Oak Park Middle School also had an impressive showing, pulling second place for group Web site design, second place for robotics and second place for information technology among the state's seventh- and eighth-graders. Cedar Ridge nabbed the third place award for grade 5-6 information technology.

    It was a big deal. Only those teams and individuals who placed first or second in regional competitions qualified to participate in the state competition. There were 523 students competing in Montgomery, representing the 76 schools that made it through the regionals. Judges evaluated 380 projects.

    The team coaches were teachers in the students' schools.

    Decatur pride was evident at the awards ceremony, but as a biased observer — my wife coached the Leon Sheffield robotics team and my eighth-grade son won first place on the information technology — I sensed more important things happening.

    Teamwork, for one.

    Leon Sheffield

    The Leon Sheffield team consisted of four fourth-graders: Mark Hay, Cory King, Sean Sears and Cooper Wright. At the beginning of the year, these children knew nothing of robotics, and their significant relationships extended almost entirely to their parents or teachers.

    Coaches are not allowed on the floor during judging. Minutes before they were judged, coach Mary Sue Fleischauer huddled with them outside the judging area. It was too late for more instructions on programming. "You can do this," she whispered. "You built this robot, and you know how it works. All you have to do is show it to the judges and answer their questions." Don't interrupt each other, she said. Look the judges in the eye when you speak to them. Don't mumble. Shake their hands.

    The robots are elaborate Lego sets with electric motors, multiple sensors
    and a wireless connection to an adjacent laptop. The Leon Sheffield robot, a "trash mobile," was on wheels. The robot's role was to collect trash cans from a poster-board parking lot and deposit them in a central location.

    Students programmed it to drive forward until its touch sensor hit a trash can, at which point claws retracted and lifted the can. It would then take the can to a designated spot.

    They were almost giddy when it worked for the judges. Then the judges quizzed them about the programming and building process, and about the notebook they prepared to accompany their project. They responded with fourth-grade, puppy-like enthusiasm, but they responded as a team. Each student had his area of expertise, and the others deferred to him. (Until he stopped, then the rest piled on their more elaborate explanations.)

    The team spirit also was evident when Hay won an individual first-place
    award for his score on the information technology test. His teammates were high-fiving and hollering with almost as much energy as they demonstrated when they won the team robotics award.

    Cedar Ridge

    The Cedar Ridge sixth-graders showed the same sense of collective pride at the competition when they won first place for their robot project, "Search and Rescue." Christopher Adams, Daniel Haynes, Josh Meyer and Andrew Parmer are in their first year at Cedar Ridge, and Coach Lavaris Thomas was pleasantly surprised at their success.

    "We're going to miss our eighth-graders next year, but this team really came together," he said, grinning at the students' excitement. "They could accomplish a lot in the next two years." Doris Prewitt and Thomas Hand also shared in the Cedar Ridge coaching duties.

    "It was hard work," said Meyer, looking at his trophy, "but it was worth it. I like building things and I like electronics. I can't wait to try again next year."

    Celebrating the individual information technology awards was a team effort for Cedar Ridge. Parmer won third place and Meyer won first place in their division, and eighth-grader John Fleischauer won first in his division. The group erupted on the sidelines. Like Leon Sheffield, Cedar Ridge took a first-place trophy in every contest it entered in the state competition.

    Oak Park

    Oak Park, coached by Martha Fish and Jim Anderson, took second place with an amazing Web site called "Teen Angst." The team included Trey Keown, Sarah Grace Mitchell, Laura Ann Prickett and Sam Scheler. Parent volunteer Scott Spearman assisted. The Oak Park team that won second place in the robotics competition included Keown, Mitchell and Joe Tutwiler. William Cole took second place in information technology.

    A boost for Decatur City Schools? Absolutely. But more importantly, a boost for the young participants. The Leon Sheffield fourth-graders, writing in their project notebook, had the significance of the competition pegged:

    "We learned that it's harder than it looks," the team wrote. "We also
    learned about teamwork and if you don't have teamwork it all crashes. The value of this project to us is very special. It makes us all feel smart and special."

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