Teammates watch from the sidelines as key players on the field make their move. The tension is palpable. The LED clock counts down seconds before the buzzer sounds. With points scored just in the nick of time, the crowd cheers from the bleachers. The referees approach the players to make their final calls. They wear their signature black-and-white shirts. One sports a wizard hat. Another completes her ensemble with a tiara.
Wait—a wizard hat? A tiara?
This isn’t the scene of a traditional sporting event; it’s FIRST LEGO League, an engineering, robotics, and science competition open to students ages 9-14.
But don’t be fooled by the silly hats and the LEGO bricks. FIRST LEGO League is hard work. Successful teams invest at least 50 hours of practice in a season.
This weekend, I had the honor and privilege of accompanying seven competitors to the Alabama FLL Championship. I’m a FIRST LEGO League coach. My team–rookies in grades 3-5–just wrapped up an amazing first season of LEGO League.
The team began practicing in August and the skills I watched my players gain since that time have made me a true believer in the FIRST LEGO League program. While most noted for its robotics portion, FLL incorporates four aspects of competition:
- Research Project: Each season, FLL chooses a theme, such as Food Safety or Natural Disasters. Each team must identity a problem, a community affected by a problem, and hone in on a solution by researching and consulting with experts. The results must be shared in a presentation before educated adult judges.
- Core Values: FLL prides itself on its Core Values. The group must learn to work smoothly as a team, solve problems with a gracious and professional attitude, and demonstrate good sportsmanship and a passion for discovery. Teams who fail to demonstrate this before competition judges are disqualified from awards or advancement.
- The Robot Game: The only purely objective aspect of FLL competitions, teams work through the season to program and operate their robot to tackle a number of obstacles on the official season field. At competition, this robot is then set loose to conquer as many obstacles as possible in a time period of two minutes and thirty seconds. A minimum ranking is required in the Robot Game in order for teams to qualify for advancement.
- Programming and Robot Design: In a judging area separate from the Robot Game, team members must be able to demonstrate their robot’s function and speak clearly and intelligently about their program development before adult professionals.
While the program attracts a diverse variety of students, there’s definitely a nerdy vibe to the process and the competitions. This is a program that is inclusive, and geek culture is openly celebrated. At competitions, the pit area is full of energy, costume pieces, props, nerdy giveaways, and a ridiculous amount of candy. Awards for categories like Programming, Teamwork, Robot Design, and Innovative Research serve to acknowledge intellectual student achievement with the same kind of fanfare usually reserved for sports.
Programs for other age groups are available, too, from Junior FLL for the younger set (ages 6-8) to FIRST Tech Challenge and FIRST Robotics Competition for advanced middle school and high school students wishing to pursue the activity at the next level.
While teams are often offered through schools and science centers, don’t be discouraged if one is not offered in your area. If you can locate at least two adult mentors to help coach, it is possible to run a team independently. We found corporate sponsors generous enough to cover most of our team expenses. Taking advantage of resources online and from experienced teams can be a huge help as well.
The skills these kids learned are invaluable. While our students ended up invigorated by their well-deserved awards, the parents and coaches are most thrilled with the growth. We started the season with blank looks and shrugs. We ended the season with even our youngest members able to answer technical questions with eye contact, clear voices, and intelligence, even when they didn’t know the answer.
I’m already looking forward to coaching next season, and invite you to consider joining me. Check out the FIRST LEGO League official web site for more information!