Mentoring FIRST Lego League

Education Robotics
Mentoring FIRST Lego League


Hi, I’m Joe Meno, editor at BrickJournal Magazine, a print and online publication devoted to the Lego fan community. I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot of things that originally were part of my hobby, but have now become part of my job. I’ve designed sets for fan events — as well as lead them — and helped the Lego Group design sets. And through all of these great projects, I’ve been documenting them in the magazine with photo features, interviews, and articles. One of the ongoing things that I haven’t presented enough in the magazine, though is something I do now at Ballentine Elementary School in Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina. I assist the school’s FIRST Lego League program.

The team I worked with last year. This year, they went to a middle school and changed their name from Burning Bricks.

FIRST Lego League (FLL) is an international competition that was started by inventor Dean Kamen more than a decade ago. FIRST stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, and is an organization that hosts robotics-based competitions for students from elementary to high schools. FIRST Lego League is a program for middle schoolers that includes Mindstorms robot building and programming and also a presentation of a student-created solution to a problem that is derived from the annual FLL theme.

This sounds very dry, and somewhat boring. However, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. I discovered this the first year I was exposed, at FIRST Lego League World Festival in Atlanta. (World Festival moved to St. Louis three years ago.) Kamen meant for FIRST to be a place where science and technology were regarded as high as sports programs in schools, and World Festival is the Super Bowl of school robotics. Teams from around the world compete with NXT and EV3 robots and projects to be the Grand Champion, and the Georgia Dome was the competition field. Winning teams start small, though, and that’s where I participate.

My job — if you want to call it that — is the mentor for Lego and Mindstorms building. I’m the resident expert on Lego building, since I am an avid builder and have had some experience with Mindstorms programming. I also help with programming and troubleshooting the student-built robots by helping the students analyze and modify their models. My main efforts begin in September and are usually completed by November, but in that short period of time I teach, demonstrate, and build for a growing number of teams.

Here’s a look at how a typical season works out for the program:

  • April (usually the third weekend): World Festival, with hints dropped about the theme for next season’s challenge.
  • July: Delivery of game boards, the playing field for the robot and associated models.
  • August (end of month): Announcement of challenge and robot games
  • September : Initial assembly and project proposals drafted up by teams
  • October – March: Competitions begin on local, regional and state levels.

I start assisting the classes after teams are set up by introducing them to the Mindstorms system. I usually show a demonstration robot (a remote control robot) and explain how it works, then start teaching the students how to build an introductory robot. What’s impressive is how the kids pick up building — for them, it’s a toy they may or may not have worked with before, but it’s still a toy. The counterpoint is that since it’s a toy, it can be distracting. But for the most part, robot training is challenging and fun. I become an advisor at this point, so while they are building, I am nudging them to try different attachments to see what happens.

By this time, the game field will have been assembled and set up by the teams, so it’s a team-building exercise. This allows them to take a look at the field and start thinking about what their robots need to do. Their coaches also start looking at the field and also the theme to help the teams on their projects. The projects are done outside of class, with research and writing happening as a team effort.

Burning Bricks at a competition. In the background are the team’s parents.

At school, the teams work on different parts of the robot – there are usually a builder, a programmer, and maybe some specialists for different parts of the robot challenge. Programming is usually the next challenge to work on, and it’s probably the hardest part of the construction. Building is easy, since the result is pretty immediate and gratifying. Programming requires perseverance. I have to help keep the team focused on testing and improving the robot. Sometimes that means I push them to analyze a programming bug, and sometimes it means that they build an accessory. Sometimes, though, it means removing an idea and starting over. My job then is to keep things going in a positive direction.

Outside of school, the team is working on their project, which is self-defined. With the theme already determined, teams find a solution to a problem that is theme related. For example, for a theme related to the aging population and the challenges they face, teams may come up with a idea for a cookie that is nutritious for seniors, or create a tablet app for answering the door. The teams select and — with their parents’ help — research and create a presentation given before FIRST judges.

I tend to call this part “the Science Fair component,” but that’s a very broad and inaccurate description. For one thing, an FLL project is usually much more detailed in research, with teams talking to adult experts for information and ideas. The project is, in addition, a product design, and their presentation is their marketing meeting. Presentations are as creative as the teams, who use songs, game shows, and news programs as inspiration to show their ideas to the judges — who quiz the students on aspects of their project. It’s like making a group audition where everyone knows enough to improvise the same answer.

Through all of these facets of the competition, there is another aspect that is being taught: Gracious Professionalism. This is a combination of good sportsmanship and teamwork. You could also call it compassionate sportsmanship. While one may not notice it at a local competition where most teams know each other, it’s very obvious at World Festival, when a team offers not only to help another that dropped their robot, but offers their parts to rebuild. It’s everyone helping everyone else to do their best. At the school I am at, there is another volunteer that teaches these core values through team-building exercises and activities.

With all of this going on, one would think that this is frantic and hard on the students — and for the first weeks, it is, as the kids learn about building and programming. The Mindstorms robotics system takes a little work on the part of the students, but something wonderful happens once they start building, and I get to watch.

I act as a facilitator and trainer, so I show building techniques and examples of solutions to various building challenges the students face. It takes a week before they start understanding building, and it’s a little like watching a baby take her first steps: Initially nervous, she begins to shape a model, and before long, a robot is completed. With that first milestone, there are still questions to be asked, and I take a look at the model. The first smiles from the kids start coming out about this time, as they check and test the structure. They see the results of their work in an immediate way, and they get to see if they built correctly. Seeing such immediate results gives the kids reason to vest themselves in the work, and they actually work harder.

The real magic happens when they program the robot. When I started programming Mindstorms robots, I was very inexperienced with the language they used, which is based on LabView, a language developed by National Instruments. Programming blocks are placed in a sequence to make a robot run. Making a robot is easy; programming is not. It’s a second type of building that has a different result. I have gotten better, especially with the EV3 programming language, which is a easier version of The NXT language.

DSC00962Lego Lightning (formerly Burning Bricks) at a local tournament.

For the students it’s a challenge. While I explain it as assigning commands to a really unintelligent dog, much of what I say doesn’t sink in until a simple program is made and run. The students light up when the robot moves and follows their program. For them, it’s a first step into a new world that they are now excited to explore. I step back and let the teams build on their own now, as the motivation is now coming from the kids – they was to build and program the best robot they can.

For the next few weeks, the teams build and test and adjust their robots, and work on their projects. I don’t do much during this time, except for fielding questions and offering suggestions. However, the teams have now become vested in their work, so the encouragement is internal. The teachers, mentors, and I do not have to push the teams at this point — the kids and their parents are now working together.

Team practices for the robot become regular occurrences and team building continues after school, leading up to the first competition. The school I volunteer at hosts its own competition to give the teams an opportunity to compete before they go to regional competitions. This also showcases FLL to the upcoming classes. The judges are all volunteers, and I usually end up recusing myself, as I trained and helped many of the teams in one way or another.

Even with the relatively small scale of the school competition, the energy is pretty high as the teams compete against the clock. At each game run, the teams cheer their robot on and jump for joy as it rolls back and forth from its task back to home base. The noise drops when a robot makes and error or falls over, but quickly recovers for the next task. It’s an intense scene, watching the teams change out robot parts and resetting it to another program — a lot like watching a race car team switch out a tire and get back on the road.

Presentations are performed before judges who evaluate the information and presentation of their project. Judges also evaluate the teams on teamwork and the construction of the robot. The construction is looked at and the team is quizzed on how they built and programmed the robot. Teamwork is evaluated by giving the team a group challenge where every team member has to participate. This makes the overall competition more than just the robot, and also makes the student participation go beyond robotics.

The robot is, in effect, the team mascot. It’s the sum of the building and the programming of all the students in the team, an extension of the personalities of the kids. What’s fascinating about this is that as teams compete from year to year, the complexity and personality of the robots become more sophisticated; as the teams grow, so do the robots. A mature team learns how to do multiple missions and programs and builds accordingly. This also means that my mentoring actually becomes more challenging as the teams build and program more.

From the school competition, the teams go to the regional tournament. Here, teams from other schools compete to win spots in the state competition. Again, the teams are judged by project, robot construction and teamwork. And they are still being evaluated on their gracious professionalism. Teams are watched for how they conduct themselves and with other teams for good sportsmanship and courtesy. Teams can win or lose a berth to the state level on a note from a judge, but you wouldn’t know it.

The competition floor has a rhythm based on the teams gathering, setting their robot, and running it in a heat. The challenge is a two and a half minute run, with a team robot doing as many tasks on the game table as possible. Robots have to move and be able to push, grab, or slide on the table, so attachments are usually used and placed on the beginning base of the game board. Set up is much like setting things up for any game; the team places their items either on the board or aside on a stand. Tables are checked, and adjusted for accuracy and placement. From there, the tables are declared ready by the judges and the team, usually by a raised judge’s clipboard.

The relative quiet is then broken by a countdown: “Three…two…one…Lego!” The tempo becomes a run, not against each team but against the clock. Two and a half minutes is not a long time try to complete all of the tasks in the game board, but the point is for a team to do their best. Failure is not something to be afraid of, and is not something to be ashamed of. There are no boos given to failed robots by the teams or the audience. It’s a rush to do tasks, and the teams have approaches as different as they are. One robot may have a arm to pick things up, while another may have a scoop to the same task. There is no single right answer for the game, just answers that work.

The team is one focused group at this point, with some members running the robot while others are cheering it on. The younger teams sometimes start slow, but quickly pick up the pace. Older teams run smoothly from task to task. But all teams explode into joy when a robot runs without a hitch, and all the teams are quiet when a robot hits a glitch. Sometimes the two and a half minute time limit is too short, sometimes it can be way too long.

Between heats, teams are practicing or socializing, usually meeting and passing out pins or other tokens to other teams or observers. The teams have a space called the Pit to work on their robot and set up their project. An FLL competition’s pit looks a little like a science fair, with presentation boards showing off information about projects at each station. There’s also usually a bowl of candy or pins for passersby to take. If the team is at their station, one can usually find out about their project.

Team projects are often quite sophisticated. While the presentation board may be that of a middle school student or group of students, the underlying ideas are often much more developed. Winning projects can have the advice of local or regional experts, including college professors and state government officials, and some projects are so unique that they become marketable products or obtain patents. This is probably the best indicator of what students can do if left to discover ideas on their own.

For this year’s theme, “Nature’s Fury,” one of the teams I helped with talked with a team parent that experienced Hurricane Hugo in Charleston, South Carolina. He told the kids what it was like after the storm had passed.

At the end of the competition, winners are selected in robot design/construction, programming, best project, and other areas of note, including gracious professionalism. For some teams, it’s a step to the next level of competition. For others, it’s the end of a wild and crazy journey where the kids stepped beyond what they originally thought they could do to an entirely new place.

But for all of the teams and their supporters — teachers, mentors and advisors — this is a voyage where the children take the lead in learning and discovery about themselves and the world around them. The Mindstorms robot is much like the teams: both start as a pile of parts, but as time goes on, the robot comes together and becomes a thing that can face the challenges it encounters with new attachments ands programming.

This year, the FLL theme is World Class, to ask students how education can be changed and improved. As a mentor, I cannot wait to see the smiles and discoveries this year’s teams will bring.

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Editor to BrickJournal, a LEGO fan magazine. Also a LEGO and MINDSTORMS builder and Star Trek geek. In a previous life, I was a graphic designer.

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