AREA — A passion for hiking – not only with fellow humans but also man’s best friend – led to the creation of the Trail Hounds’ successful safe hiking project, which landed the team the opportunity to represent Maine in the North American Open Championships for the FIRST LEGO League in May.

ON THE TRAIL —Isaiah Carter of Harrison, Ali Benoit of Paris and Amber Lynch of Paris, members of the Trail Hounds, hold up pieces of their three-prong project for the FIRST LEGO League competition. The local home-schooled team will head to California in May to compete in championships.

The Trail Hounds are part of the Oxford Hills Homeschool Robotics Club, which is comprised of seven homeschoolers in seventh through 10th grade from the greater Oxford Hills area. The team participates in the FIRST LEGO League’s annual challenge – which focuses on an innovative solution project, robot competition and core values – with this school year’s theme of “Animal Allies.”

The project

The team meets once and sometimes twice a week at the South Paris Baptist Church since students are located across the area including Norway, Paris, Harrison and Bridgton. Members brainstormed ideas for their innovative solution project and then voted, said Ali Benoit, an eighth-grader from Paris.

“We were all really passionate about hiking and most of us have dogs we hike with,” she said.

“We chose to focus on that and bring hiking with dogs and people together and share awareness outside our community because most people don’t know how to hike safely with their dogs,” said 10th-grader Isaiah Carter of Harrison. He added potential problems while out enjoying nature with your canine friends could include getting lost, suffering an animal attack and/or other possible injuries.

“For our project, we decided we wanted to address both issues of getting lost and getting hurt on the trail,” explained Amber Lynch, an eighth-grader from Paris.

The students designed a hiking safety vest for the dogs that not only can hold first aid items but a Bluetooth tracker where owners can locate their dogs if they run away or get lost. They also created a website,, which gives advice on hiking safely with dogs, how to find your lost dog, what to do during hiking emergencies and even pet-friendly hiking locales in Maine.

The students have worked with Lee Dassler, executive director of the Western Foothills Land Trust, to post fliers in the area’s hiking spots with a QR code a smartphone user can use to access the Hike Safer website.

The fliers will be posted at “trails, mountains, even parks – anywhere you might encounter a problem with your dog,” Isaiah said.

The robot

As part of the competition, there is a course that each team’s robot must traverse and complete missions along the way. Isaiah said attachments for the robot can be built and they use an app to program the LEGO robot.

PROGRAMMING — Amber Lynch, an eighth-grade homeschooled student from Paris, shows off her team, The Trail Hounds’, robot the students programmed as part of the FIRST LEGO League competition. Ali, six of her teammates, and parent coaches will head to LEGOLAND in California in May to compete in the championships.

“There is certain amount of points for completing each obstacle,” Amber explained, noting they only have 2.5 minutes to complete as many missions as possible. “It’s all programed so we can’t touch the robot. … We get three tries and they take our top score out of three.”

She added the team will “try to use a different mission [or] different strategy to see which one gets us more points.”
The kids agreed the toughest part of this competition is programming the robot.

“It takes quite a bit of work to get them to work but it definitely makes you feel good once they do,” Isaiah said.


To get to the North American Open Championships – which will be held from Friday, May 19 through Sunday, May 21, at LEGOLAND in California – first the Trail Hounds had to win competitions at the local and state level. They placed third in the regional qualifier held in Jay and then were awarded second place at the state competition.

The Trail Hounds have been around for six years and some of the longtime members were in disbelief they were going to champs.

“We were really shocked,” Ali said.

“We were so excited. This is my fifth year – I was like, ‘Finally, we get to go!’” Amber said.

“This is actually my first year,” Isaiah said. “I didn’t know what was going on [or] why everyone was so happy.”

“This is why we were crying,” Ali laughed about their tears of joy.

While at championships, the Trail Hounds will compete against 70 other teams, comprised of students from the United States, Mexico and Canada. In addition to the robot’s mission, the team will give a 10-minute presentation on their safe hiking project. They will also be judged on team building challenges and core values.

“[It’s] a three-day competition – they’re basically judged the whole time,” said Nancy Lynch, who is the coach of the Trail Hounds and mother to Amber and Caleb, who are team members.

“Referees will be watching us even if we’re not competing,” Amber said, adding they will be judged on how they’re working with each other and interacting with other teams.

There is also a term used in FIRST LEGO League called “coopertition,” which is a combination of cooperation and competition. The students will also be judged on their coopertition when it comes to interacting with other teams, Isaiah said. The Trail Hounds will practice this even before they head to California, as they’re meeting with out FIRST LEGO League teams in the area.

“We are pretty confident that we will do well [at championships],” Isaiah added. “There are some things we need to work on like our missions and robots … and just kind of edit our presentation, [focus on] core values – things to that extent.”

“It’s cool that as a team they get along so well and have had so much fun at whatever they’re doing,” Nancy Lynch said. “It has been kind of fun. When they’re done with the competition in December, they’re done with the project. This year, they get to kind of continue and see it through.”


Funding a trip for a team of seven plus parent coaches to California is no small feat. That’s why the Trail Hounds have been raising money since they found out they were going to champs. In addition to attending local events, hosting raffles and earning donations by stacking wood, face painting and the like, the students designed two products they’re selling as fundraisers.

FUNDRAISING — Ali Benoit, an eighth-grade homeschool student from Paris, face paints recently to raise funds for her team’s trip – The Trail Hounds – to the North American Open Championships for the FIRST Lego League in May.

One is the first aid kit they designed and put together – which will fit in the dog’s hiking safety vest – for $10. In their research, they discovered first aid kits can range from $1 to $100.

“We wanted something everyone could have … so it’s an affordable first aid kit,” Ali said.

Each kit comes in a plastic bag – which can double as an emergency water bowl for dogs – and has a piece of paper explaining the use of each piece inside the kit. The kits include gauze pads, elastic bandages, medical tape, alcohol wipes, triple antibiotic ointment, styptic pen in case a dog’s nail breaks, and scissors.

The second product is a paw protection salve.

“That was one of the things they identified hiking with dogs – often times they get injured in the paws,” Nancy Lynch said.

“We made a salve that prevents bleeding and keeps snow out of paws and keeps it moist so they don’t dry out and crack,” Isaiah said. “It lasts for a while.”

To purchase either of these products, email

They also started asking members of the homeschooling community to donate $10 each, with a goal of garnering 100 donations. The Trail Hounds also launched a GoFundMe campaign at Those wishing to send in donations can make the check to OHH Robotics and mail it to P.O. Box 282, South Paris, ME 04281.

The team has a goal of raising $15,000. As of Monday, March 13, $6,139 had been raised.

“It’s a lot of work, but in the end it’s all worth it,” Isaiah said.

“It will be worth it,” Amber agreed.

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