FIRST Lego League is a robotics competition for elementary and middle school students using the Lego Mindstorm robot kit. This is by far one of my favorite robotics programs as it emphasizes not just how to build and program a robot, but adds a judged element of gracious professionalism, a research component that has kids look at real world problems, a community aspect as the kids go forth to interview scientists and the people their research most efforts, and entrepreneurship skills as they develop tee shirts, web sites and relationships with sponsors.
The regional FIRST Lego League competition was held last weekend at the National Robotics and Engineering Center in Lawrenceville (home of the CMU Robotics Academy). The competition hosted 48 teams that had qualified for the Regional in various scrimmages and qualifiers held throughout December. I took the opportunity to interview some of the coaches, curious how they solved problems of sponsors, expertise, space, financing, and time. What I discovered was a menagarie of different opportunities that brought thousands of kids to the competition table. Homeschool groups, public libraries and YWCA sponsored teams, engineer-parent sponsored teams, brick and mortars school teams that ran after school programs in conjunction with in school robotics courses, for profit companies who charged individual participants an enrollment fee and hired a coach, and the outreach arm of a University of Pittsburgh research lab.
The FLL team I absolutely have to give a shout out to is my own, NXT Generation! While I may have been listed as coach, I was in reality only an advisor. It was one mom that stepped up to become hostess and an FLL veteran, 8th grade Andrew, who stepped in to coach. Kirsten offered her home, allowing her family room to be consumed by the 8 foot by 4 foot practice field. Dads built the table frame out of plywood and all the kids (recruited from three homeschool families who already knew each other) built the lego models that became part of the competition board. This year’s Senior Solution theme included quilts, gardens, stoves, dogs, cardio and weight lifting machines. What our team lacked was an engineer adviser We had programming expertise, but couldn’t seem to overcome some of the building issues to score more than 185 points. We had a wonderful senior advisor who invited team members to further their research and practice their research presentation at a nursing home in which she teaches yoga. One of the girls on the team designed amazing tee shirts. One of the boys put his forensic training to good use preparing to verify points with competition board judges. There was an opportunity for each child to bring their individual gifts to the a team collaboratively paid for by the parents.
There were several other teams born from committed parents and housed in living rooms across the state. Triple MindSurge was a team of three coached by a homeschool parent and software engineer. High scoring BrainSTEM, also run by parent (engineers again), met three times a week. Side Effects May Include took over the first floor of the Selvanko home and received support with activities of the Boy Scouts (did you know there is a Robotics merit badge?) and the local Catholic school. Sts. Peter and Paul even hosted a Qualifying Scrimmage.
Asha Seshan (great job on the interview Asha!), coach of Not the Droids, laughed as she described her living room and dining room being taken over for the FLL season. The cost of the team was shared by parents of participants and beyond the base kits, little was needed to replenish and enhance the parts and sensors. Asha’s team members met twice a week and each one had homework, often a lesson in the free NXT Trainer that is available to FLL teams through CMU Robotics Academy.
The Robopals and Penngineers team were sponsored by the Penn Area Library. The library partnered with parents (including several engineers) who coached the team while the library offered facilities and entry fees. Cheri Peters, a parent coach, described 4 to 8 hours each week they would practice and the importance of reflection time to look at their progress and set new goals. The intensity of the day could be heard in her voice, “They get it.” They get teamwork for kids who may not be athletic, they get math with wheel diameters and rotation calculations, they get adaptive programming with a simple icon based language.
Another interesting sponsor was the YWCA in Greensburg. They paid for science and math teachers to run afterschool robotics programs for girls in both Yough and Derry Middle Schools. The teams met twice a week. YWCA’s across the nation are sponsoring similar STEM initiatives.
Three of the teams were sponsored by GreenE Academy, founded and run by Maria Yamanaka, who graduated from Carnegie Mellon’s engineering school, and Marcel Bergerman, a Systems Scientist with CMU’s Field Robotics Center. The twenty-five students were selected among those who attended the GreenE Academy summer camps in 2011 and 2012. They met at Winchester-Thurston–a long-time Academy partner–for three hours every Saturday to prepare for competition. The students came from all corners of the Pittsburgh region, from Mars to Wexford to North Hills, all the way down to the city itself, Chartiers Valley, and Baldwin; and didn’t know each other until the first FLL meeting. To bring the teams together, coaches Maria and Marcel emphasized on a weekly basis the fundamental aspects of teamwork and gracious professionalism. Several pizza parties held during the season certainly contributed!
I spoke with Soma Mukherjee, one of the parents who assisted Maria and Marcel during the regionals and the championship. She remarked that there was a point early in the season when she and the other parents “just got it.” Parents were exhausted, but the kids loved it and learned so much. She again remarked how the structure of the FIRST competition allowed for all types of gifts to emerge, mechanical, programming, visionary leadership, graphic design and motivation. As a parent helping out, the FLL structure gave her the opportunity to make sure no one got excluded (while nodding to a nine-year old who airbrushed terrible towels to root on the team).
Another for-profit company sponsoring teams was Snapology, a company started by two Pittsburgh math teachers to provide a fun environment for children to explore STEM concepts. They advertised the opportunity to participate on Snapology’s FLL team for grades 4-8. They charged parents $100 to enroll a child and provided supervision, training, and a facility to practice in. Three teams of ten students made it to the finals. The coach, emphasized every child, no matter the special needs, has an opportunity to learn.
The HERL (Human Engineering Research Laboratories) at the University of Pittsburgh actively recruits children with disabilities for their FLL team. Their goal is to encourage all children, but especially those with disabilities, to take an interest in technology and how it impacts our world. HERL also offers great summer robotics programs for interested participants.
Rick Rechenberg, teacher and Robotic Hornet’s of Holy Seplucher Catholic School, had an interesting tale. He was invited as a teacher to attend a summer robotics clinic sponsored by the Butler IU and Westminster College. Mindstorm robots were presented to participating teachers that enabled him to integrate them into the math and science curriculum. The after school robotics club grew and this year he brought twenty students divided into two teams to the competition. Local businesses, anonymous parents, and exceptional mentors (volunteering engineers) made the enthusiasm of these teams contagious.
Sewickley Academy RoboPanthers were made up of middle school students who had learned the rudiments of programming and building in the classroom, then volunteered for an after school program to prepare for competition with their (very enthusiastic!) middle school technology coordinator, Stephanie Roccon. Sewickley Academy also generously hosted a qualifying scrimmage. The school’s commitment to robotics shines in one of their high school students, Billy Sullivan. With years of robotics experience (both FLL and the high school FRC competition), he served as a judge alongside the professionals from the National Robotic and Engineering Center.
The Campus School of Carlow College had two teams, the S.O.S. and Remembots that met once a week after school. Their program stressed leadership. A math teacher pointed out the two 6th graders serving as team captains. The school has two teachers (paid a small stipend) work with the teams. The teacher coaches trade off responsibilities. The 4th and 5th grade math teacher introduces the programming and the 6th-8th grade math teacher facilitates the research component. She felt the largest benefit of using the robotics was that the students were able to experience and work through failure. “It is good to get it wrong, now! It can be fatal without support.”
The Yo’bots, a team formed at the Young Scholars of Western PA Charter School, was coached by the IT teacher that gathered the kids two times a week after school. A team mentor, trained in both biology and mechanical engineering, spoke to FLL’s ability to teach kids how to respond to adversity and have fun learning the technical stuff alongside who to communicate to a team.
I talked briefly with parents from J.S. Wilson Public School in Erie whose very enthusiastic kids drove down the night before. They to participate with their science teachers who held an activity period during school and ran an after school program. The parents were travel weary, eating the tournament hot dogs and sipping coffee. I sat with my coffee to relax, but soon the conversation shifted to our kids, the world of the future we see they are part of creating, and our exhausted hands raise to illustrate our points, our postures shift to show our passion, and we laugh out load at the antics of yet another team cheer coming from the competition tables.
If you missed the day (or want to see more!), join us for the high school FIRST Tech Challenge on February 9 at the John Jay Center at Robert Morris and FIRST Robotics Challenge on Saturday March 16 at the Peterson Events Center in Oakland.