Rocking Robotics With Kids and LEGO® Bricks

lego boysIf you happened to wander accidentally onto Madison College campus on the morning of Saturday November 9, you’d be excused for believing you’d stumbled into a giant middle school summer science camp. Teams of kids, aged anywhere between 7 and 14 wearing coordinated team t-shirts had the run of the place, putting finishing touches on their elaborate science project displays and robotic creations. Scattered across several locations around the campus, and providing a focus for the milling masses of hundreds of kids, their parents, coaches and spectators were several ping-pong sized tables, each one with an identically laid out obstacle course built entirely out of LEGO® bricks. From time to time a team of kids was summoned by a referee, and the real excitement began.

On getting a “thumbs up” from the team, the referee would set off a buzzer – the team, made up of anywhere from two to ten kids, would run up to the table. A couple of the kids set their robot – built around a LEGO® Mindstorms® “smart brick” – down nervously but quickly in a designated corner. One kid checked that the proper attachments to the robot were in place, the other verified that the right program was dialed in. They aligned their creation carefully on the table, and hit a big orange button on the body of the robot to launch it. The robot then trundled away – on wheels or treads depending on how the team conceived it – and pushed toy LEGO® trucks to designated zones on the board, wrecked some LEGO® buildings while carefully raising others above an imagined flood, rescued little LEGO® minifigs, and reunited LEGO® family members with each other and with their pets, also built of tiny LEGO®s. The robot returned to its home base as often as needed where the kids could tinker with it, switching out attachments and programs. Two and a half tense and breathless minutes after starting, the second buzzer sounded indicating the end of the round, and the team would erupt into a spontaneous cheer as its results were announced by the presiding judges.

Welcome to the annual BadgerLand Regional Tournament, a part of the FIRST® LEGO® League competition, one of many such events held across the world every year since 1998. The FIRST® LEGO® League, or FLL for short, was established to introduce elementary and middle school kids to the world of robotics through play with LEGO® bricks, but its core values have more to do with teaching kids the importance of team building, sharing knowledge and giving a helping hand both to their team-mates and competitors.

In Madison, BadgerBOTS Robotics Corporation is an educational outreach organization that, among many other robotics-themed programs, runs the BadgerLand tournament and helps kids to form teams and compete in various competitions. They also run LEGO® robotics themed summer camps, which are a great way for kids to dip their toes into this world before they plunge into a semester’s worth of commitment.

After having my son participate in one such summer camp, I found myself volunteering to coach for a “Minor League” team – made up of 2nd and 3rd graders. Minor leaguers don’t officially compete in the tournament, but they do get to put together a robot and run it in a demonstration event, identical to the actual tournament course, on the day of the competition.

Three months is not a lot of time for a bunch of kids to form a team and put together a working robot: we would meet every monday evening for three months, and as we got close to the beginning of November we started meeting twice weekly. The short timeline is something we had no control over: The details of the year’s challenge aren’t released until early September, and the first competitions start in November.  This year’s theme was “Nature’s Fury”, and so the tournament course demanded that the kids’ robots perform various mock rescue missions, and simulate other aspects of natural disasters (such as releasing the fearsome “tsunami logs” – blue logs made of cylindrical LEGOS that would then roll down the length of the course).

At the beginner coaches’ orientation session at the end of summer, we were assured that we didn’t need to know anything about LEGO®s, robotics, or programming. The skills we’d need as coaches were more people-oriented: Organizing the meetings, getting the kids to participate and have fun. I exchanged glances with a couple of hard-core geeks in the audience. What about those of us who knew all the technical aspects but were uncomfortable with the “soft” skills being demanded of us?

Thankfully, I received a lot of help from my co-coach and the parents of the kids on our team – so much so that I felt like I was the one who was doing much of the learning. And somehow, over the course of the fall, our team went from a collection of not-necessarily always happy kids each doing their own thing to a surprisingly tightly-knit group genuinely engaged in the challenges of the robot game.

It helped that part way through we realized that with six kids remaining actively on the team, we could have the robot perform three separate missions out of its home base, and each time a different pair of kids would be responsible for setting the robot up for its next run. This meant that nobody was left standing around and twiddling their thumbs (or the 8 year old equivalent of doing cartwheels, mock-wrestling each other, knocking over furniture, and generally running around while screaming at the top of their lungs. What fun.)

The day of the event itself turned out to be a blast for the kids on our team: Some of their robot’s pre programmed routines worked better than expected. Others not so much, with the ensuing hilarity of watching the robot plow through parts of the tournament field we’d never intended it to go into. Even as we and the other minor league teams were packing up to go home right after the big lunch opening ceremony, the full FLL teams were preparing to start their officially scored runs.

We did get a chance to stop by and see another part of the competition that the minor league teams didn’t have to participate in: Each full FLL team had to tackle some problem associated with the “Nature’s Fury” theme and come up with a poster and possibly a prototype to show off their solution. One team we saw made a model tornado generator for educational purposes. Other teams proposed ways for people to tag and find their pets during a natural disaster. Since each FLL team’s total score is split evenly between its performance at the robot games, its research project, and its ability to work as a team (as determined through a team interview with contest judges), the older kids spent a lot of time making their project look good.

With the recent focus on Science, Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) in education and outreach, the FLL competitions have received quite a bit of media attention, and deservedly so. But at the end of the day, as the organizers of the event are careful to point out to anxious parents, the main point is for the kids to have fun. Judging by the faces of my son and his team mates at the end of the day, that goal was more than reached.

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Maciek Smuga-Otto


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  1. This is awesome! I’ve never looked into the FIRST Lego League until reading your post! I am excited at the level of enthusiasm and commitment from around the world! I work for a summer technology program that also uses LEGO robotics to engage and teach through hands on learning. The valuable STEM skills these children are learning will pave the way towards success! Keep up the great work!

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