DeCusatis Celebrates a Decade of Promoting STEM to Schoolchildren

LEGO League

March 9, 2018 — One of Marist’s core principles is service to others, so working to enhance the educational opportunities of local students is a natural part of that commitment. For the past 10 years, Assistant Professor of Computer Science Casimer DeCusatis has done his part by getting young people excited about science and technology through the award-winning Hudson Valley FIRST® LEGO® League (HVFLL). This innovative program encourages students to explore their passion for science, technology, engineering, and math by designing, building, and programming their own LEGO MINDSTORM® robots.  

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was founded in 1989 by inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen, who is best known for developing the Segway. The organization’s vision is “to transform our culture by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and technology heroes,” and it has spread to more than 50 countries worldwide. This year alone, teams of more than 255,000 children between the ages of six and 14 participated in FIRST programs. 

Dr. DeCusatis (formerly an IBM Distinguished Engineer) founded HVFLL a decade ago. As a 501(c) not-for-profit public charity, it depends completely on donations to remain active and is staffed solely by volunteers; 100 percent of donations are used to support the program. With the support of local businesses and his co-directors Leah Akins of Dutchess Community College and John Houston of IBM, the group’s initial robotics tournament in 2008 attracted about 40 students. Since then, the program has grown exponentially, currently serving more than 1,100 students and hosting tournaments in Albany, Troy, Ballston Spa, Poughkeepsie, Red Hook, LaGrange, Warwick, Yorktown, Sleepy Hollow, and Chappaqua. On January 27, 16 Marist students spent the day supporting a competition at LaGrange Middle School, while Assistant Dean of the School of Computer Science & Mathematics Cynthia Worrad volunteered her time as a judge. 

Casimer DeCusatis, Sue Serino, Dawn Galente

(l to r) Assistant Professor of Computer Science Casimer DeCusatis, State Senator Sue Serino, and Dawn Galente, Director of Science and Engineering Programs for the Arlington Central School District

This year’s HVFLL championship tournament was held on February 24 at Dutchess Community College. In recognition of its 10-year
anniversary, HVFLL received proclamations from Poughkeepsie Mayor Robert Rolison and New York State Senator Sue Serino. In addition, Dutchess County Executive Marcus Molinaro declared February 24 “Hudson Valley FIRST LEGO League Day” in Dutchess County. Senator Serino attended the event and spoke with participants and their families. The winning team, “Hotshot Hotwires” from Ossining, advanced to international competition and will compete at FIRST WorldFest in Detroit in April.   

Yet HVFLL is about more than just teaching kids how to program robots. Students also learn to live by a set of core values, including teamwork, diversity, respect, discovery, and gracious professionalism. Although students who participate in HVFLL are more likely to pursue technology-related majors and careers, these core values serve them well in whatever path they choose. And it appears that FIRST’s dream of turning scientists into heroes is becoming a reality. With the annual HVFLL championship drawing increasingly large crowds, Dr. DeCusatis asked, “When was the last time you saw hundreds of people cheering and doing the wave while kids showed off their prowess in science and engineering?”

About Marist

Located on the banks of the historic Hudson River and at its Florence, Italy branch campus, Marist College is a comprehensive, independent institution grounded in the liberal arts. Its mission is to “help students develop the intellect, character, and skills required for enlightened, ethical, and productive lives in the global community of the 21st century.” Marist is consistently recognized for excellence by The Princeton Review (Colleges That Create Futures and The Best 381 Colleges), U.S. News & World Report (9th Best Regional University/North), Kiplinger’s Personal Finance (“Best College Values”), and others. Though now independent, Marist remains committed to the ideals handed down from its founders, the Marist Brothers: excellence in education, a sense of community, and a commitment to service. Marist educates approximately 5,000 traditional-age undergraduate students and 1,400 adult and graduate students in 47 undergraduate majors and 14 graduate programs, including fully online MBA, MPA, MS, and MA degrees.