Morris Jeff Community School students Zelie Rose and Nia Hooker run their robot through its course as they practice for a state competition. Credit: Marta Jewson / The Lens

On a rainy day in New Orleans earlier this month, a group of middle schoolers calling themselves the RoboPelicans huddled around a table trying to solve one of the biggest problems facing the city: flooding.

Morris Jeff Community School was surrounded by water after a sudden thunderstorm drenched Mid-City in early August. Rain, and the threat of it, caused classes to be canceled three days in the first week of school.

So it wasn’t hard for students to come up with a problem related to hydrodynamics, the theme of this year’s First LEGO League. Since then, they’ve been working to solve it.

“OK. OK. I think I figured it out,” 13-year-old Chris Bergeron said during a practice earlier this month. “So what Japan does, is, instead of using pumps, they use giant tunnels under the ground that the water goes into.”

“They kept asking about flooding here.”—Michelle Nusinov, Morris Jeff teacher

“We have those, too,” teacher Matt Tuttle said.

The conversation continued as the students built off one another’s ideas.

Saturday, the team from Morris Jeff will compete in a statewide competition for the LEGO League. They’ll be judged on core values, their proposed solution to their problem, their robot’s performance and its design. The robot must complete four missions, including pipe removal and pipe replacement.

Much of the conversation in the city since last summer’s floods has focused on the amount of rain the city can pump out during thunderstorms, and how to keep catch basins clear so they can carry water to those pumps.

The students’ conversations this semester followed a similar pattern, especially after a presentation on water management this fall.

“They kept asking about flooding here,” said Michelle Nusinov, their coach and math teacher.

The team decided to focus on clearing catch basins to prevent flooding. At last month’s regional competition, the group proposed a solar-powered conveyor belt, anchored to a nearby tree, to remove trash that can clog catch basins.

Judges said their solution wasn’t original enough, said Zelie Rose. Her reaction: “I didn’t see anybody else doing it.”

“That’s what they’re working on now,” she said, pointing to a group of four children talking animatedly in front of their Chromebooks as they fine-tuned their robot. Made of LEGOs, it’s named Krispy because of the Krispy Kreme doughnuts they sold to raise money for their effort.

They discussed Amsterdam’s waterways. One student described how pumping stations work in another city. Another suggested using something “like those misters at the grocery store” to distribute excess water on soil throughout the city.

One boy brought up the “bowl effect” — the fact that New Orleans is shaped like a bowl, with its center below sea level.

“What creates the bowl effect?” Nusinov asked.

Subsidence, they all agreed. Yes, she said, but what creates that?

“Not a lot of water can get into the soil” because of the buildings and roads in the city, 12-year-old Tristan Thompson said. “And that weight is pressurizing the soil and compacting it.”

[module align=”left” width=”half” type=”pull-quote”]The discussions often take on a life of their own. A few days earlier, they had discussed installing permeable concrete so water could soak into the ground.[/module]The discussions often take on a life of their own, Nusinov said. A few days earlier, they had discussed installing permeable concrete so water could soak into the ground. Nearby, Parkway Bakery and Tavern has installed a permeable parking lot.

“It’s really lovely to end days with a group who is motivated by themselves,” Nusinov said.

Many teachers were in the building on Aug. 5, setting up their classrooms two days before the start of school.

It rained nine inches in three hours that afternoon, overwhelming the city’s crippled pumps, paralyzing Mid-City and stranding people throughout the city. The water was chest-deep on Banks Street, a few blocks from the school, at dinnertime that day.

School was closed the following Monday to make repairs. Class was cancelled again that Thursday after a Sewerage and Water Board turbine failed overnight. With rain in the forecast, the city declared a state of emergency, so school was cancelled that Friday, too.

In the weeks after, the Sewerage and Water Board was criticized for not being prepared and not being forthright about downed pumps and the turbines that power them. Many of the catch basins that carry stormwater from city streets into the drainage system were clogged, and city crews hadn’t kept up with cleaning.

Back at Morris Jeff, Zelie and Nia Hooker took Krispy through the course on an 8-foot by 4-foot table.

Across the room, the conversation turned again to drains and how to keep them clear.

“What happens if trash gets stuck on top of it and the water can’t get through?” Nusinov asked.

“Janitors?” one boy asked quietly.

“Janitors for the whole city?” another exclaimed. They all giggled.

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...