On Saturday, Jacob, Matthew, and I got up at 5am and didn’t get home until 11pm. Only one thing will motivate them to do that. First Lego League. For those of you who are new to my blog, FLL is an amazing opportunity for kids from 9 to 14 to build and program a robot. Of course, it’s more than that. The kids are given robot assignments and time limits in which to do them. And they compete against other teams. Last year Jake and Matt’s team took third place in the robot performance category in the State Championships.
This year they worked harder. So they went off to the 7 hour Championship with high hopes. The Championship is more than “robot runs” although they have three of those. The kids also have to do a presentation based on their research—this year they were assigned to research traffic issues. They discovered which areas of Chattanooga had nasty accidents, and then they met with the city’s traffic engineer, researched areas of the country with similar problems, brainstormed solutions to the problem and later presented their solutions to the city traffic engineer.
Of course, the kids didn’t want to do your typical science fair report. One day after a team practice, Jake announced, “I wrote a play for FLL.” I blinked and said, “Oh, right. Uh, maybe I can help you.” Without taking offense, he passed me the script. I read the script. I passed it back. “Uh, this is really good. I wouldn’t make any changes.”
Besides the presentation and the robot runs, the judges (professors from Tennessee Tech, scientists from Oakridge Nat’l Lab, and even a prof from MIT) interview the kids on robot design, leadership, and teamwork. They’re even tested on communication skills.
In one of the teamwork/communication/leadership tests, the judges gave the kids a few props and told them to make the tallest structure they could. After the kids did, they tried to pick up the table and make it taller still. The judge stopped them—lifting the table didn’t count.
A team of ten judges interviewed them about their robot’s design. The kids’ design had unique features (including a “hammer,” a ring tosser, a capture box, and reverse mechanism to go over bumps) that the judges hadn’t seen in any other robot. In fact, the design was unique and effective enough that the judges laughed and shook their heads. I told the kids it’s called “thinking outside the box” and engineering professors love it.
I could go on, but I’ll stop. The kids took third place in robot performance, and they were very happy. But we all sat patiently in the stands as the rest of the awards were called out, even the final big awards “Champion’s Award.” When they called out the number of the second place team, the kids just sat there and I said, “Hey, that’s us.” They were in shock. They never even considered that they could take the second highest award in the state championship.
Then Jacob and his friend Andrew got an invitation this morning—to join the next level of First League. The kids are older, the robots and programming are much more complex, and the competition stiffer. But the sponsors want them to join their team. Cal explained to Jake that it’s like going from triple A to the majors just before the World Series. This First League’s State Competition is in February. And just when I thought we were done with robots and programming...