Bright and early on Sunday the 14th, 48 teams consisting of some 400+ middle-school
kids, along with a small army of adult and high-school aged volunteers, converged
on the Appleton-East High School
FIRST LEGO League state finals. Together with my son Jeff, and eager to
learn a bit about what the FIRST LEGO League is all about, I drove down to watch.
I wasn’t disappointed. It was an exciting, and extremely well-organized event.
At Appleton, I somewhat randomly chose
to tag along with a team from Middleton,
Wisconsin called The Blue Wizards as they went through three presentations
that are part of the judging process that comes ahead of the actual robotics
competition. I say "somewhat randomly," because I was intrigued by
the large, cardboard apparatus they were using to demonstrate their design for
a Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) that would rove around on Mars, collect rock, water,
and soil samples, and then return to space. I just had to see what that was
The Blue Wizards
Top left-to-right: Nick Neylon, Eric Parton, Brian Roscoe, Zachary
FIRST LEGO League is an international
partnership between an organization known as FIRST
and the LEGO Company. FIRST, an acronym for
"For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology," is an
organization founded by the inventor of the Segway,
Dean Kamen, for the purpose of motivating young people to consider careers in
science, technology, and engineering. In the FIRST LEGO League, teams of young
people aged 9-14 use LEGO
Mindstorms as a vehicle for learning about robotics. Each year the kids
are given a set of robotics challenges, or problems to solve. Using a standardized
kit, they build and program robots to solve each problem. This year’s theme
was Mars exploration, and problems involved launching samples from a canister
launcher, clearing dust from a solar panel, and freeing a rover stuck in a sand
dune. Kids work together with adult mentors and coaches to design and program
solutions to these challenges. Then they meet in friendly competition to demonstrate
The Galactic Knights making a few, last-minute,
I said that FIRST LEGO League was a vehicle for learning about robotics, but
that’s an oversimplification. In fact, it’s backwards! My observation is that
robotics are used as a vehicle for imparting important life skills such as teamwork,
conflict resolution, problem-solving, the ability to think logically. Kids make
friends, experience the joy of working together for a common goal, and the competition,
which is really against themselves rather than each other, is a chance to show
off what they’ve learned. Amongst all this, some will no doubt be turned on
to science and technology, but that doesn’t really matter, because the other
lessons are so much more important.
The Blue Wizards, as did each of the other teams in the tournament, appeared
before three sets of judges to give three presentations:
- A presentation about their ability to work together as a team, how they
divided the work, how they resolved conflicts, how they went about recruiting
new members, and so forth.
- A science presentation on some aspect of Mars exploration. This is where
that cardboard device came into play.
- A presentation on the design decisions and tradeoffs made while designing
and programming their robot to solve the challenges in the competition.
These presentations are more like question-and-answer sessions, and sometimes
the judges ask some tough questions. Just why did the Blue Wizards choose to
power their MAV using a small, nuclear reactor? I’ll leave you to ponder that
question, but suffice it to say that the team had a good answer to give the
Nick and Eric(?) defending some Blue Wizard
And what about that cardboard apparatus? You can see it below, fully populated
by the various "devices". Each team member represented a different
device such as the nuclear reactor, the Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR)
device, and so forth. Each member spoke in turn about what he represented, how
such a device would function, and the device’s purpose on a Mars Ascent Vehicle.
It was a very engaging presentation, all-in-all much better than many corporate,
Powerpoint presentations that I’ve seen. Sometimes low-tech is best.
The Blue Wizards Demonstrating their Mars Ascent
The presentations come in the morning, and they’re followed in the afternoon
by three rounds in which each team fields its robot to perform the tasks specified
for the competition. These robotics rounds are the most publicly visible part
of the tournament, and it’s great fun to watch as each robot performs its assigned
tasks. Points are given for each successfully performed task.
Created by the Space Crusaders!
I was very impressed by the tournament, and by the kids I met and talked with.
Dean Kamen may be well-known as the inventor of the Segway, but I think his
organization’s LEGO League idea will have a far greater and longer-lasting impact.
My son Jeff and I had a great time at the tournament. My thanks to that former
member of the Muk-Town Klash Nebula team who gave my son (who is days
away from being eight ) one of those team pendants on a beaded necklace. He
wore that all day long. You really made his day, more than you probably realize.