They call themselves the Bloodsuckers, they’ve inked themselves with “tattoos,” they made their own guitars and they “flung poo.”
By those descriptions, you’d think you just read about a punk rock band. In actuality, the group described is a team of fourth and fifth graders at Hillsville Elementary School. And no, it’s not reason to call Social Services, it’s actually a wonderful thing.
“The Bloodsuckers” are actually a group of gifted students at Hillsville that recently won the Judges Award in a state competition in the First Lego League (FLL). The name is derived from their group project, which consisted of research about ticks. The “tattoos” were not permanent, but rather used to show the trademark “bulls-eye” that is usually associated with a tick bite that leads to Lyme’s Disease. And the “flinging of poo” was part of their robot design project in which the robot had a wall attachment to help it gather Lego versions of manure and pig. Most importantly, this group of HES students gets really, I mean REALLY, excited about learning.
“Fun – it was a lot of fun,” Bloodsucker team member Christian Davis said of the team’s first year of First Lego League competition.
And not only was it run for students, it turned out to be extremely worthwhile. Of the nearly 600 FLL robotics teams in Virginia, only the top 108 were selected at their regional competitions to go on to compete at the State Championship at James Madison University in Harrisonburg on Dec. 3-4. Carroll County had two teams go to state – the HES Bloodsuckers and the Carroll County Middle School W.A.G. team. Thirty-five awards were given out at the State Championship and the Bloodsuckers won the Judges Award under the category of Core Values, which places them in the top 35 percent of the state.
“On their first run of the robot on the table they were cited for a building error. This was a huge setback. Their wheels were over the mat edge,” said Shanda Sinnett, Gifted Specialist for Carroll County Public Schools. “The Bloodsuckers rallied and within two hours they rebuilt the robot and adjusted their multiple programs. They ended up scoring their highest score ever of 124 on the table. What a way to finish! It was the Core Values of FLL that was the catalyst for their perseverance.”
Mike Hobbs, who coaches the Bloodsuckers along with Lucy Nottingham, said the Judges Award is not for one specific category in which the team excelled. It wasn’t in the area of robotics or for the project.
“But we had such a solid, unique team that we got the judges award for that. I think it was more for our core values specifically,” Hobbs said. “We just rock.”
To improve its core values score, the Bloodsuckers came up with a song about core values one day before heading to state. The song talked about many of the things FLL stresses in core values, most notably the spirit of friendly competition.
While FLL has been in full swing for a couple of years now at the middle school level at Carroll, this was the first year Carroll’s elementary students were able to participate. The Bloodsuckers didn’t even form before tryouts in September. This year’s theme was “Animal Allies” and the HES team wanted to focus on ticks.
“We had different ideas like bears and deer, but we focused on ticks because they are very close to our area,” said team member Victoria Tabor.
“Ticks just sort of stood out to us because there is a lot of people around our area that have Lyme’s disease and some people we know have Lyme’s disease,” said another “Bloodsucker,” Becky Hedge.
In fact, one of the team’s members, Will Tompkins, actually contracted Lyme’s Disease while the group was working on the project. Talk about talking one for the team!
“He did that outside of the group,” Hobbs joked. “It was not a project requirement.”
After a rough start in its first scrimmage, the team excelled in its first actual competition, the regional at Abingdon on Nov. 12. There, the Bloodsuckers won the robotics design trophy. Nottingham gushed over how much the team improved from the start of the season and praised the middle school team for its cooperation in helping the Bloodsuckers get started.
“When you sign up for First Lego league, one of the core values is ‘coopertition,’ so you are helping each other while you are striving to push to win,” she said. “Our kids got a lot of help from the scrimmage, there were able to share ideas and get help from other teams.”
Hedge said the team got a firsthand look at the true value of teamwork.
“We learned that when you work together you get more things accomplished than when you work alone,” Hedge said.
The Bloodsuckers also got plenty of outside help from a tick expert from Virginia Tech as well as Carroll County 4-H Youth Agent Jonette Mungo.
“The tick expert from Virginia Tech told us there is a new tick coming in and he gave us examples,” said team member Cole Ward. “He put a lot of ticks in bleach to show us the difference.”
Team member Erika McKenzie explained the group got most of its research information from the Center for Disease Control, a local veterinarian, nationalwildlifefederation.org, and a Youtube video.
“Our project was about ticks and people and Vector-bourne diseases. Our connection between the two were opossums,” Tabor said. “So we made a skit and we also made a core values song just to show the judges we are really involved in this because we really believe we can help out with ticks. So our plan was to create an opossum house. Opossums eat 4,000 to 6,000 ticks per week. Once we create a possum house, the possum can go into it and they can be saved from being roadkill and people shooting them and stuff like that.”
The team even set up a field trial and used bait and a camera trying to bring in an opossum and catch it on film. Only two cats were recorded, Nottingham said, but it was not a failure because two opossum-sized animals were drawn in by the trial.
“There are bounties out for trapping coyotes and killing and trapping fox – those are the predators of these tick carriers,” Nottingham said. “So as we have less predators we have more mice, shrew and chipmunks that cause the number of Lyme’s Disease ticks to go up.”
The team came up with another song to give examples of how people can protect themselves from ticks.
“Tuck your shirts in your pants, pants to your socks, now you are anti-tick protected.”
The team came up with another song for its motto, song to the tune of Ghostbusters – “When there is something strange out in the woods, who you going to call? Bloodsuckers.”
All team members particularly enjoyed belting out those songs. While each team member brought his or her own talents to the group, Hobbs said those songs showed how valuable the FLL has been for the HES squad.
“Our shy ones as they got in there, they delivered their lines loud and proud and sang it out real loud and proud as well, that was great,” Hobbs said. “They all had a moment to step up and that was great to see from the coach’s side.”
Bloodsucker team members are Erika McKenzie, Dalton Norman, Slade Quesenberry, Laurel Sutphin, Will Tompkins, Becky Hedge, Victoria Tabor, Cole Ward and Christian Davis.
“We wish to thank Carroll County Public Schools for full support of the FLL robotics program, Shoney’s Restaurant for sponsorship, and Appalachian Power for supplying a grant that helped pay for a robot,” Sinnett said.
Allen Worrell can be reached at (276) 779-4602 or on Twitter@AWorrellTCN