By: Shannon Mann
On Monday, Nov. 12, 2018, several unlikely partners in education came together in only something LEGO could inspire that is out of this world.
Robotics students from Wendell Middle School, Smithfield Middle School, Neuse Charter School and Johnston County Home Educators joined together to hear veteran astronaut Dr. Don Thomas speak as part of this year’s FIRST LEGO League competition theme “Into Orbit.”
A major part of the FLL competition is demonstrating various core values. The competition blends cooperation along with competition into a core value called “coopertition” in which all teams work together to help each other even though they are competing for awards and advancement.
“Having the chance to hear from someone of his background was just too good to keep to ourselves,” said April Parrish, team coach for the homeschooled Ragnarblocks. “This is a great opportunity to not only learn from him about space, but for all of our students to learn from each other too. We’re really excited to partner with these schools to learn and grow together.”
Angela Jenkins, team coach for Neuse Charter’s Marsh-in-Mellows and Robotic Stormtroopers, helps mentor the rookie JCHE Ragnarblocks team and offered the school’s campus as a site to host Thomas after learning he was willing to come to North Carolina to speak with the teams.
“Their coaches called me up and wanted to know if our students would be interested in hearing his speech,” said Jenkins. “Not only do my students get to hear from a man who has been in space four times, but we all get the benefit of using him as an expert which helps us garner points during competition.”
Jenkins extended the offer to the two public middle school teams, and on a day when most schools are out for the Veterans Day holiday, more than 40 public, charter and homeschooled students, parents and siblings came together to listen to Thomas’ presentation entitled “Living and Working in Space.”
Thomas traveled from Maryland to talk with the students about his four space shuttle missions aboard Space Shuttles Discovery and Columbia. He spent 44 days in space and made nearly 700 orbits around the Earth. He talked to the students about education and perseverance, telling them it took him four attempts to get accepted into NASA’s space program, and that he didn’t even go to space until he was 39 years old.
“I encourage you to work hard, do your best and never, ever give up on your dreams,” Thomas said.
Kody Parrish, a member on team Ragnarblocks, with goals of being an engineer when he gets older was thrilled by Thomas’ presentation.
“It was really cool to see all his photos and ask him questions,” said Kody. “He even gave us coins that were made out of the same material they use on the space shuttles.”
Thomas spent more than an hour and half with the teams answering all types of questions, and allowing the students to try on gear he brought with him. He left Raleigh a short time after his presentation heading for New York and China this week to talk to more audiences about his time in space.
The FLL teams will continue their preparation for their regional competition in early December. All five teams compete on Dec. 8, 2019 at Wayne Country Day School in Goldsboro.