An alternate solution to public transportation in Robbinsville created by nine and 10-year-olds? That’s the magic of the FIRST LEGO League competitions, and Dipali Gavande and her team of Robbinsville students are an example of that.

The team’s idea is centered around using a tram that would reduce public and school transportation costs as well as road repairs.

Dipali Gavande, Dev Gavande, Gabriel Dundale, Eshan Kanade, Dyanada and Vijay Gavande, members and coaches of DNA Robotics, created an alternate mode of public transportation for a recent competition.

As Dev explains, “our solution is named SchoolSIT, and it is a school transit network with a mini-tram rail that runs along the edge of the sidewalk. The land has a dual purpose; it serves as a track for the tram during pick-up and drop-off hours, and a walkway for the rest of the day.” The mini-tram can also be used by residents on certain occasions.

The students work on the project after school a few afternoons a week, usually at the Gavande home. “We still have to do some things with the details, the width, length, height of the tram and how all the systems will be organized. Overall, the cost would be much less than what the school currently spends on buses,” said team member Dev Gavande.

Gavande, a Robbinsville resident, joined the FIRST LEGO League team as a coach last year. FIRST is the nonprofit youth organization that sponsors the league.

“Anybody can volunteer and coach the team,” Gavande said. “My daughter Dyanada, (who is a mentor to Dipali’s team this year) is now a freshman at Robbinsville High School and part of a robotics team there. She was involved with FIRST when she was in seventh and eighth grade. I used to go and watch the other competition, but then my son, Dev wanted to get involved, so I decided to form our own team last year.”

Dipali’s husband, Vijay, also assists with figuring out some of the financials.

In 1989, NYC-born engineer, entrepreneur and inventor Dean Kamen, creator of the Segway, and a man passionate about technology, founded FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a non-profit organization designed to inspire children to get involved in science and technology.

Around the same time in Denmark, Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, the Danish grandson of LEGO founder Ole Kirk Christiansen and owner of the LEGO Group, was also interested in advancing children’s interest in science, engineering and invention. As a child, Kristiansen often tested his grandfather’s new LEGO concepts and appeared on much of the company’s toy packaging.

Kamen found a kindred spirit in Kristiansen: in 1998, the two created the FIRST LEGO League, an international program for students (aged 9-14 in the U.S., 9-16 elsewhere) that, through technological competitions, invites school teams to research, build and experiment with science and technology.

Gavande’s team, which is called DNA ROBOTICs, did very well in its first year out, receiving a “Judges Award” (an award given to a team for distinctive recognition) for FIRST LEGO League’s “Into Orbit,” where teams had to develop a solution to social and physical problems humans face during long-duration space exploration. They created a headset which would have all the features of augmented reality technology and also act as an aid to vision and balance, helping with concentration and memory during space travel and reduce astronaut space motion sickness.

Every year, FIRST LEGO League introduces a scientific, real-world challenge for teams to work on. The challenge includes designing and programming LEGO Mindstorm robots (programmable robots based on LEGO building blocks) to complete tasks, working out a solution to a problem related to that year’s theme and then meet for tournaments. Challenge themes have been both fascinating and diverse, from improving the ways people and animals interact to figuring out a way to make less trash, to last year’s challenge, called “Into Orbit,” where teams had to imagine themselves being transported into space, and coming up with ideas to explore and innovate in the vast universe beyond earth.

This year, Dipali has three students on her team: her son Dev Gavande, Gabriel Dundale (both 10 years old), fifth-graders at Pond Road Middle School, and Eshan Kanade (9 years old), a fourth-grader at Sharon Elementary School. The 2019 FIRST LEGO League Competition theme was “City Shaper,” and the challenge was for students to identify a problem with a building or public space and develop an innovative solution to benefit the community.

As Dipali explained, “the actual City Shaper competition is done: we didn’t have the time to advance to the competition level, but we are going to continue with the project. At this point we are trying to get feedback from people who work in the township, financial people, engineers and others from New Jersey Transit, those kind of professionals. We want to get all the information right and perhaps we can then incorporate it into next year’s challenge.”

Gavande’s team has already shared their ideas with Thomas Egan, a police officer in Robbinsville’s traffic division and Kathie Foster, Superintendent of Robbinsville Schools, and both have very much liked what they have seen and heard so far.

Dipali explained the concept a little further.

“The average walkway size would be four feet wide, so we would have to increase current walkways to about 55 inches,” he said. “There would 10-12 rows in a tram, and two to three cars per tram train, so a total of 30-36 passengers.”

The team has even created a budget for the proposal, which Dipali notes, “really needs input from experts. Considering the size and complex nature of the project , this is still in the primary phase, but we really believe this project has potential. It is cost-effective and the safest way to transport students to and from school, especially in towns like Robbinsville, but also in large cities.”

The team has also created a map with a color legend, showing three possible routes, coded on the map in pink, blue and green. The blue route, for Sharon School, would run along Sharon Road, Route 33 onto Route 526; the pink route would take Route 526 all the way to Pond and Robbinsville High School, as well as Tindall Road to Pond and RHS. And the green route either would run along Route 33 or along Union Street to Washington Boulevard, to Pond and Robbinsville High school. A Hutchinson Road route can also be added to this.

“We found out that it would be hard to get approval from three authorities: Route 33 is a state highway and Route 526 is a county road—inner roads require permits from township authorities,” Dipali said. “Our best bet would be to follow our green route as an initial step, which is a small distance (2.75 miles) to start with. This covers the town center and Foxmoor area, which does not get bus services. This route would only need approval from the township.”

For now, the team will continue to work on the project, get feedback from engineers, financial experts and other township authorities, and, said Dipali, “hopefully, we will be able to use the information we have by then to merge into next year’s FIRST Lego League challenge.

And who knows: in the near future, thanks to three fourth and fifth-grade students, Robbinsville residents may be looking at a whole new way to travel.