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St. Mark students take third place in coding competition

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What do you get when you fill a room with students, computers, a 3D cyber robot and codes to make the robot perform tasks? The start of a cyber robotics competition.


Three diocesan schools — St. Mark School in Vienna, St. Ann School in Arlington and St. Timothy School in Chantilly — earned a spot in the statewide finals of the Virginia Cyber Robotics Coding Competition in Richmond Jan. 12.


St. Mark eighth-graders Valentina Rozo and Frankie Anstett, who took third place, received Virginia Commonwealth University College of Engineering scholarships worth $4,000 a year for four years.


Four diocesan teams from the three schools scored in the top 11 of 35 teams. Each school brought two teams of two students to the finals. Seventh-graders Ava Romeo and Finley Tarr also competed for St. Mark.


“Essentially, it’s a cloud-based program that combines robotics and coding,” said Jeanne K. Bliss, director of admissions and student services at St. Mark. “Students can do it from any computer. They use code to make the robot complete different challenges, sort of like a series of obstacle courses. The robot has to go in certain directions, move things, use sensors, collect points, avoid obstacles, and ‘complete the mission’ by getting to the bull’s-eye/target at the end of each mission.”


Bliss said she told one of the student finalists that St. Mark Principal Darcie Girmus was praying for all of them. “Our student said, ‘The whole time, we’ve been saying God is with us, God is with us, God is with us,’” said Bliss. 


Anstett said his experience at the competition was enriching. “A lot of it was timed and it gave me a sense of what actual coding was like, not just as a competition,” he said. “We were around a lot of people who had the same interests and a lot of opportunities to code.”


The experience taught Rozo how to cope with pressure. “You have pressure that you are in the top finalists and others wished they could be,” she said. “Not only are you competing for yourself but also for your teammate.”


Anstett said coding opens a world of possibilities. “I didn’t have any background knowledge of coding, (but) when I started doing it, I discovered a deep interest in it,” he said. 


To get to the finals, the schools participated in two other steps — a boot camp Oct. 15-Nov. 4, and qualifiers Nov. 5 -14. 


“The field of robotics provides students with an opportunity to practice logical thinking skills, teamwork, strategic decision making, resilience and perseverance,” said Marcela Cortes, computer teacher at St. Ann. “In addition, it offers them the opportunity to think seriously about math concepts and apply them during their programming.


St. Ann finalists included fifth-graders Nick Hearne, Christian Larson, Robert Schoshinski and seventh-grader McKenna Hayden.


At St. Mark, the interest is so great in coding they had to do a “code-off” to determine who would represent the school.


“I love that three diocesan schools made it into the competition,” said Bliss. “Our students are solid in faith formation and in using technology to solve today’s and tomorrow’s problems.”


Bliss said coding teaches multistep problem-solving, logic, reasoning and perseverance. “I think young people are dismissed as not interested in the world around them,” she said. “It’s not true. They are so engaged and ready to participate in helping society come up with solutions, and this is one fun way to engage them in that.” 


Jake Foster, Clara Condon, Joon Kim and Maryson Joseph represented St. Timothy at the finals. Karen Young, a seventh-grade teacher, said more than 110 fifth- through eighth-graders tried the missions of the competition.


“Except for the students in my robotics elective, these students worked at home on their own time,” said Young.  


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019