For a family whose kids have really never been much into playing with LEGOs, it may seem odd that for the past two years, our October-December has been all about those little plastic bricks.
Or rather, about LEGOs + robots. Which equals First Lego League (FLL) – a robotics program for kids in 4th through 8th grade. And Junior FLL, for the younger kids, through third grade.
Last fall was our first experience with FLL, although the girls have had friends in the program for a while. Abbi and Hannah both signed up for FLL and Becca was ecstatic that our school district was starting a non-competitive Junior FLL program for 2nd and 3rd graders. We ate, slept and breathed LEGOs and robots for months, at least so it seemed. And had a learning experience when Abbi’s middle school FLL team (Shake, Rattle, and Roll) made it through our local regional FLL tournament to the state competition but Hannah’s team (the Solar Bears) did not. Abbi’s team competed at state and won a first place award for robot design.
I love the FLL program – not only is it a positive and friendly way to compete, the kids have to learn robot design, simple programming and work together to research and put together a presentation that gives a solution to a problem faced in that year’s topic. Last year was “Nature’s Fury” and the projects all dealt with ways to help in case of natural disasters. This year’s topic was “World Class” and the kids had to come up with innovative, creative solutions in the field of education. There are two components to the FLL competition – the table runs, where the team’s uniquely designed robot has to earn as many points as possible on a board comprised of specific obstacles (all made of LEGO bricks, of course), and the three judging areas, where the team presents their robot and programming, and then their project and presentation in front of teams of judges. The third aspect of the judging portion of the competition is where the team has to work together to solve a problem that they’ve never seen before, using FLL core values of ‘Coopertition’ and ‘Gracious Professionalism’. This is the heart of First Lego League – working as a team, helping others (even other teams) so that everyone is able to compete on a level playing field, and cooperating with teammates, coaches, judges and fellow teams whenever possible to make the experience an awesome one for everyone.
This fall, not only did the girls all want to participate in FLL again, but I also volunteered to help coach Hannah’s team at our elementary school. Her team was made up of six 6th grade girls, one 6th grade boy (who was unfortunately ill and missed most of the season), one fifth grade boy and one fourth grade boy. It was challenging but a lot of fun and I loved getting to know the kids better, especially since several of Hannah’s friends were on the team as well. After several weeks of voting, the team decided on the Robotic Wizards as their name (most of the girls are huge Harry Potter fans). One of the girls’ grandmothers made pointed wizard hats for the whole team to wear at competition, which really made them stand out and be memorable.
Abbi’s middle school team came up with one of the more interesting team names that I’ve heard in FLL so far – Orange Lego Batman. One of her coaches has a thing for the color orange, and as her team is mostly boys (just her and one other girl), well the Batman makes perfect sense. Abbi’s more of a Marvel fan than DC, but she’s now got a thing for Batman as well. The orange “I’m Batman!” capes that her team wore along with their team t-shirts were also a ton of fun.
Becca was excited about her second year of Junior FLL too. In the Junior program the kids are also divided up into teams, but they display their final projects at an expo instead of competing against other teams. The program is similar to the older kids’ though in that they do a research project based on a theme related to the general FLL theme for that year. This year’s Junior FLL theme was ‘Think Tank’ which also involved the field of education. The kids also design and build a LEGO model around their theme and the model has to include at least one moving part. Becca’s team decided to research ways in which people can study the ocean, and they called themselves the Saltwater Sharks.
Our regional FLL competition and Junior FLL expo were held the Saturday before Thanksgiving. It’s a day-long event full of robots, team spirit, and lots of LEGOs. Out of the 40-some teams competing, only 12 would go through to the state competition. I think it was one of the more nerve-wracking experiences I’ve ever had! Being a coach for Hannah’s team meant that I didn’t get to see much of Orange Lego Batman’s competition, but I had seen their project presentation already in practice and I caught one of their table runs that day. I also took Hannah’s whole team through to see all of the Junior FLL team’s displays – Becca was thrilled to show off her team’s underwater-themed model and their Show-Me board.
The Robotic Wizards had worked hard for weeks and their efforts paid off. Their robot design was very basic and simple. We had six total programs – four of which we knew worked well consistently and two that were hit or miss. If all went perfectly, we could have scored close to 200 points on the board, but of course all did not go perfectly during any of the team’s table runs. They did end up with a high score of 100, which we hoped would be enough to put them in contention for state. We were able to watch two of their judging portions – the teamwork challenge is always a huge secret so that nobody knows what to expect and so it isn’t broadcasted for parents or spectators to watch. The point isn’t to complete the challenge necessarily, but to work well together as a team while making a good attempt.
At the end of the day, both Orange Lego Batman and the Robotic Wizards made it through to the state competition, in 9th and 7th places respectively. Out of the 12 teams that made it through, 7 were from our school district – which was a huge accomplishment. We have a strong high school robotics program and the high schoolers act as mentors to the younger kids, so it’s awesome to see them all do so very well.
The State FLL competition is a two-day long event for our local teams. The kids get to miss a Friday of school in mid-December, ride buses over to the other side of the state, explore a museum or other cultural attraction, stay in a hotel overnight (with a pool) and then compete on Saturday before heading home on the buses. It’s an amazing experience that is fun, educational – and exhausting. As a coach, I went along this year and we had a blast. I caught sight of Abbi only a few times – her team was on the other bus and at the other hotel, but I know she liked having the sense of independence as an 8th grader to be able to stay just with her team and chaperones. Hannah was stuck with me, of course. 🙂
We spent Friday afternoon at Crossroads Village – a picturesque 19th century Great Lakes village all decked out for the holidays. We also rode the Huckleberry Railroad, a true steam engine train. The kids got to attend a short magic show, explore how folks lived and worked in the 19th century and use up their spending money in the gift shop, before we headed to the hotels and dinner. That night we practiced and the kids swam.
Saturday’s competition was very different from the regional tournament. These teams were good! We weren’t expecting to place at all, but were hoping some of our district’s 7 teams might win an award. Three of the teams did – including Abbi’s Orange Lego Batman team, which won first place for Gracious Professionalism. The Robotic Wizards didn’t earn any awards, but we beat our top table run score by 20 points and the kids all had a blast.
Lego League is done now until next year – and I know that at least one of my girls can’t wait, since Becca will be in 4th grade next year and able to compete in the regular FLL tournament for the first time. She’s already asked me to coach her team. 🙂 Hannah will be in middle school and will have to choose between FLL or VEX robotics – she’s not sure which she’ll want to do yet. Abbi will be a high schooler (eek!) and too old to compete in FLL – but if she joins the high school robotics program, she’ll have the option to help out a FLL or Junior FLL team as a mentor. She loved every minute of her FLL experiences, so I hope she’ll stay with the robotics program.