“Simply having a wonderful Christmas time,” sings Sir Paul McCartney, as twinkling lights and flashes of festive color dance across tall trees, delicate arches, and serene housetops, perfectly timed to the music of his iconic holiday melody.
The display enraptures the young, and fills the hearts of the young-at-heart with a festive whimsy, allowing all who come to watch to break away from the bleak of the world today, if only for a moment.
This is the Rockin’ Robo Holiday Lights show, located at 23 King Arthur Drive in Londonderry, New Hampshire.
Brought to the people of Londonderry and other passerby by the McLeod Family, the Londonderry Foundation for STEM Education, and the students of the Londonderry High School Robotics Team (FRC Team 1058), the show makes for a great social-distancing holiday activity.
The Rockin’ Robo Holiday Lights show adds a delightful spin on the long-beloved tradition of cruising the neighborhoods to take in the sights of Christmas lights and lawn ornaments, while giving drivers the chance to help support Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) programs in town.
LHS Robotics club mentor and class of 2011 graduate Brendon McLeod leads the project from his home in Londonderry, where the show takes place. Under his guidance, the students are given their chance to shine through the shining lights of the performance.
McLeod is also the president of the Londonderry Foundation for STEM Education, a new nonprofit for the town dedicated to supporting activities related to the field.
According to recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in careers related to STEM have been projected to grow more than 9 million since 2012 and through 2022. Despite these promising figures, support for STEM-related extracurriculars has been less than promising.
But with the help of Rockin’ Robo Holiday Lights, McLeod and other STEM mentors are on a mission: To become, in McLeod’s words, “The Friends of Music of STEM.”
About a year and a half ago, McLeod, along with a few other adult mentors, discovered a lack of unity across the STEM programs of Londonderry. McLeod explained that unlike the music, sports, and other extracurriculars, the math and science clubs seem to fall by the wayside in terms of publicity and funding.
“Math…chess club, biochemistry club, all of them are in the same boat,” said McLeod. “We’re all just kind of treading water constantly.”
McLeod stated that because of a lack of resources, including adult mentor availability, some STEM programs have been facing the risk of being dissolved, like the high school’s Bioconnect club, previously been run by LHS teacher Patricia Lawson.
When Lawson was set to retire, the students who had found a home in the biology club were at risk for losing the place where they felt they could be themselves, explore their interests, and engage in activities that would help them advance after high school.
“Our program isn’t just about building robots or doing math competitions,” said McLeod about the Londonderry Foundation for Stem Education. “It’s about helping these students thrive in that environment who might not have a great social group.”
Several other groups and services related to STEM have been at risk of being discontinued due to lack of awareness and support, said McLeod, from elementary through high school, where perhaps it is needed most.
During a sensitive time in their young lives, STEM clubs help to offer a respite for students who might otherwise feel alone amongst hundreds.
“It’s a really great community,” said fourteen-year-old LHS freshman Brendon Saranich, encouraging students who may be on the fence about pursuing an interest in a STEM extracurricular, recalling how welcoming and open the Robotics team was during his first night participating in the club.
Having just moved to Londonderry before the start of the school year, Saranich had a bit of experience with engineering from his work with the Lego League at his old school, and set out to broaden his interests by emailing the McLeod before the school year started.
Extracurricular activities have a way of creating long-lasting relationships from a place of shared interest, and naturally STEM clubs are no exception. In addition to keeping touch with fellow club members for nearly a decade, Robotics is also where McLeod had met his wife, Heather McLeod. Both McLeods pursued their passion for STEM into college and beyond.
While the pandemic has made things difficult for a number of after school activities, it has not squelched the determination and passion of the students of team 1058, and it shows through their Rockin’ Robo presentation.
The McCartney segment of the show was programmed entirely by Saranich from his home in Londonderry. McLeod explained that he had given Saranich the configurations before the light display had even been put up. Young Saranich then took the time to put in his own research into how he would coordinate which displays would light up during which moments of the song and got to work programming the segment.
This is just one example of the proactivity and dedication the youngsters of STEM possess, as McLeod spoke highly of the ethic his team displayed to make this show possible.
As impressive as the show has started out, the Rockin’ Robo Holiday Lights show still has big plans, such as incorporating segments for non-Christmas holidays including Hanukah and Diwali, as well as sensory-friendly blocks for those sensitive to fast-paced songs and light sequences.
Updates on these additions are available on the Rockin’ Robo Holiday Lights Facebook page.
During these difficult times, a number of already struggling STEM programs have been fighting to stay afloat. With a little Christmas magic, McLeod, Saranich, and all STEM students and mentors are determined to make STEM shine into the new year and beyond.
“What we’re all about is to help people see how much these programs mean,” said McLeod. “We want to make sure these programs have a chance.”
The Rockin’ Robo Holiday Lights show is currently running from 4:30 p.m. until 10 p.m. each night through January 6.
Viewers can find more information, and can help further support the efforts of the LHS Robotics students through donation at londonderrystem.org/rockinrobolights. All donations are tax deductible, and all funds collected go towards supporting STEM programs in Londonderry.