From left to right: Eileen Kuo, Mark Caleca, Michael Mastrangelo and Nathan Kuo.
Not many Americans know anything about or have even heard about the pangolin. A group of Queens students is trying to change that.
The Hyperscales is a team of eight elementary and middle school students who are members of the Forest Hills First Lego League (FLL). FLL is an international youth program that teaches students to solve real world problems through research, design and technology.
The Forest Hills FLL meets once a week on Saturdays for two hours. Each year, the club members take on a robotics project, where they build and program a fully functioning robot out of Legos, and a research project, where they’re tasked with solving an important issue.
Since September, the eight members of the club, ages nine to 14, have been working on a comic book to raise awareness about the pangolin, a scaly mammal that resembles an anteater or armadillo. They chose the mammal because it’s slowly becoming extinct.
“I think the pangolin is a very rare species,” said 11-year-old Michael Mastrangelo of Flushing. “We’re trying to raise awareness so people will care and actually fund to save the pangolin, and save us by extension.”
The comic book, which was conceived, written, illustrated and completed completely by the teens, warns against the possible extinction of the pangolin. After humans eat the very last one, they find that they cannot replicate it in a lab.
As a result of a broken link in the food chain, insects begin to take over the world, preying on humans and spreading diseases. The pangolin’s extinction eventually leads to a decaying planet and the end of human civilization.
“They eat 70 million bugs each year,” explained Mark Caleca, a 13-year-old from Maspeth. “They also help fertilize the ground, which is good for plant growth and farming.”
The students wrote the book as a precautionary tale of the dangers of eating and hunting rare mammals like the pangolin. The animal is native of the forests of Asia and deserts of Africa and they are not found in the United States, so not many Americans know about them.
But they’re considered a delicacy in the parts of the world where they live, said 12-year-old Nathan Kuo of Glendale, so many people will pay a high price to eat them.
Caleca, one of the oldest in the group, said in order to prevent the pangolin’s extinction, humans should stray away from eating them, or using them for medicine, wine, jewelry or even leather, which other countries have done. In the comic book, the Hyperscales lists hotline numbers of international groups that have already worked to preserve the scaly mammal.
Mastrangelo, currently a student at IS 237 in Flushing, said through their research, the group found other efforts, like the World Wildlife Fund, that have tried to save the pangolin, but the awareness efforts have not worked so well.
“Some people already have solutions, but they’re not being spread,” he said. “Not many people are being convinced.”
The group hopes that through the comic book, more young people will learn about the need to protect the pangolin.
In addition to their research project, the FLL members are competing in a robotics competition on February 4. Run by the FLL organization, each team will have two minutes and 30 seconds to show off the robot they’ve been programming since September.
Caleca explained that they create a software and program the robot to do simple acts, such as carry items or walk along a line and turn. The students don’t control the robot with a remote – it runs on its own.
“We don’t control the robots, it’s autonomous,” Mastrangelo said. “For example, if you have it going forward too much, it can go into a corner and crash into a wall.”
“Then you have to take the software, take the memory box that makes it turn and lessen the force so it makes a clean cut and continue with the rest of its journey,” he added. “This can be tedious, but it’s good because this is actually the programming part of it. Our goal is to make it move a little bit without running over the object or going too far.”
“It can be a little complicated,” said Eileen Kuo, who is Nathan’s younger sister. “Instead of using a remote, you have to see how the robot moves. You have to be in a robot’s perspective so you know where it’s going.”
As the qualifying competition nears, Nathan Kuo said they’re putting the “finishing touches” on the programs. Team members said they feel good about their prospects.
“We’re feeling pretty confident about our team. Both our project and our robot have been worked on so hard since September,” Mastrangelo said. “Last year was quite difficult, but we were able to succeed from our mistakes. I think we’re going to be able to dominate the league.”
The FLL members all spoke “getting hooked” on working with robots and learning about programming. Mastrangelo said he’s currently using “cookie-cutter software” on his computer, but wants to learn more about technology.
“I’m very interested in the computer so I’m planning to take a lot of technology classes when I’m older,” he said.
The elder Kuo said he was “hooked like a fish” when he joined FLL. After he programs the robots for FLL, he goes home to make and test out his own programs.
“What I like about it is you can make the robot make funny sounds, do a dance or drive in circles,” Kuo said.
His sister, Eileen, is still in elementary school. She’s the youngest of the group. She learned about FLL from her brother.
“I got interested in it and he taught me how to program a little,” she said, “and I learned some myself.”
Caleca said he joined the organization because he wasn’t involved in many clubs at school. When his mother began researching local clubs, they found First Lego League, and were interested.
“I’ve just always loved technology, from Legos to EV3 technology to making some games or working with software in general,” he said. “They’ve always intrigued me for how they work.”
The students also receive adult supervision by their parents, who also act as coaches. But the teens said the coaches are there to instill a sense of teamwork, cooperation and respect, which are some of their core values.
“Our coaches aren’t babysitters. They’re actual people that inspire us to keep going,” Mastrangelo said. “They’re not actual teachers, they can’t help us. We have to learn from each other and we have to do all the work.”