Lunar Cats members celebrate their “Explore and Design” award following the awards ceremony at the World Expo in Houston, Texas. Members include (front row), from left, Isaac Henderson, Margot Palmer, Lily Ellison, Cade Stewart, Tank Palmer and (back row) Coach Sheryl Evans.

Five Paxton School elementary students traveled to Houston, Texas last week with 15,000 robotics students from across the U.S. and 40 countries for the FIRST Championship Houston, which includes competitions for students in elementary, middle and high school divisions. Paxton’s students, ranging in age from pre-kindergarten to third grade, were selected to represent the 137 teams in their 16-county region of the Florida panhandle based on their work on their “Mission Moon” project.

The young STEM students are members of the school’s FIRST Lego League, Jr. team self-named “Lunar Cats” and have been meeting since September to learn about the moon and what is needed to live there through hands-on activities. They then used their knowledge to build a moon base out of Legos that solved all of the problems humans would encounter on a long-term mission. Their build included coding two robots to deliver materials from their rocket and to push ice from the moon’s surface to the moon base for melting and provision of liquid water to the base.

“Each year FIRST chooses a theme for the year’s building and coding project and the kids were excited to investigate the moon this year by making craters with rocks and flour, visiting the moon with the Apollo 11 astronauts through virtual reality, and lots of other fun activities,” explains team coach and fourth grade teacher Sheryl Evans. “The focus of our program is really three-fold: science, engineering and coding, and communication skills.”

In Houston, Paxton’s students gathered with sixty other FIRST Lego League, Jr. teams where so called “soft skills” were really emphasized. The team, in only their third year, participated in interviews by a panel of FIRST reviewers and presented their Lego moon base and display board at the World Expo for other teams and visitors from around the world to visit.

The Lunar Cats team was awarded the “Explore and Design” award at the World Expo for their work, but Mrs. Evans says that wasn’t the real prize. “Watching these young kids confidently answer questions about their design from the Australian team at the next table, shake hands and exchange swag with team members and their chaperones from the Ukraine, or giggle about something silly with the kids from the Vietnamese team, that’s when you see the process come full circle,” Evans expressed.

“Science and engineering doesn’t exist in a vacuum. When students know their science, can build and code a solution using critical thinking skills, and then have the confidence to share that knowledge with others . . . that’s when we’re really preparing our students for real life.”

In the closing ceremonies held at Minute Maid Park, home to the Houston Astros, thousands of students listened as Dean Kamen, founder of FIRST, concurred with Evans, “We can’t build the future for our children. We must build our children for the future.”

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was founded in 1989 to inspire young people’s interest and participation in science and technology. FIRST participation is proven to encourage students to pursue education and careers in STEM-related fields, inspire them to become leaders and innovators, and enhance their 21st century work-life skills.

Pre-kindergarten student Margot Palmer, left, explains her contributions to the team’s moon base to the interviewers at the World Expo while her teammates await their turn to share.

Paxton Junior Robotics at World Expo

Third grader Cade Stewart, in yellow, explains the elements of his team’s moon base, built entirely from Legos, to a team of students from Vietnam.

Paxton Junior Robotics at World Expo

The Lunar Cats team displayed their work at the World Expo, including sharing about their home in Walton County. The team gave away pins, sunglasses, coloring pages and more thanks to donations of swag items from the Walton County Tourist Development Council and Walton County Farm Bureau.

Submitted by Kalli McMillan/Heather Stewart