It was one of the most stressful moments I’ve faced as a parent.
My heart pounded so hard I could almost hear it through the noise thundering all around us. Sweat beaded on my brow. They were out there all by themselves and I felt helpless in not being able to help them. Had I prepared them well enough? Would they survive the pressure?
All I could do was…cheer them on.
Don’t worry, they weren’t in harm’s way. I was just coaching their robotics team in our First LEGO League State Championship.
My son, NerdBoy, and his teammate were at center court in a local college basketball arena, poised to launch their robot, Rudy1, into robotics history.
First LEGO League
Every year, 250,000 kids from around the world descend upon similar arenas to take part in what robotics enthusiasts might call the Super Bowl for Nerds. The competition features semi-autonomous robots tackling nearly two dozen tabletop challenges. The bots’ student “handlers” compete with the hope of earning recognition as some of the greatest robotics engineers of their time.
Since 1999, First LEGO League, or “First,” has inspired millions of kids to embrace their nerdiness and learn more about applied innovation, imagination, and teamwork. Every year, First issues a global challenge. It’s up to kid engineers, aged 9-14, to develop a solution around the real-world problem involved in that challenge. For the 2015-16 school year, the contest focused on animals.
Utilizing LEGO Mindstorms, teams also must design, build, and program a semi-autonomous robot to compete on a tabletop playing field involving more than 20 challenges. It’s an opportunity to get kids excited about engineering and technology.
Training isn’t Just for Athletes
Every week for nearly six months, our team, Tesla’s Foil, met to build and test our robot, develop a project, practice teamwork, and prepare to compete head-to-head with other teams. During the process, we often had setbacks. Another way to put it is…we failed a LOT! But, amazingly, my Nerds never gave in to failure. After a ton of hard work and learning from mistakes, they could see the light at the end of the tunnel.
I bet you’re thinking I’m an engineering nerd able to teach these kids all about robotics and computer programming.
Well, you’d be mistaken.
I haven’t the first clue about how to do any of this stuff. In fact, after nearly erasing their computer programming a few days before the competition, the team (NerdBoy included) banned me from touching both the computer and the robot.
*Sigh* – ungrateful little nerds! NerdBoy included!
Building a Team of Nerds
Nope, once again, Clueless Dad had no clue. Being a fan of BattleBots and having seen RoboCop at least a dozen times, I was sure I could help this team. But that’s really not the point. The First LEGO Robotics program isn’t designed for me or any other parent. It’s really about self-discovery for the kids through trial and error. By doing it all themselves, here’s what they get out of it:
- Teamwork – they learn to discover, fail and succeed as a team
- Programming Skills – LEGO Mindstorms is a terrific program that gives them experience in problem solving
- Engineering Skills – LEGO gets them building and allows them to solve problems in real-time
- Personal Growth & Confidence – There are no parents to hide behind. The kids have to stand up and do it all themselves. First LEGO gives Nerds the opportunity to surprise even themselves.
First LEGO League is an amazing experience for kids and coaches alike. I got to see my team grow and learn essentially all on their own, and was blown away by how far they’d progressed in just a few months as a team.
I, of course, dutifully held down my role, which was to organize and focus their energy around the challenges. Oh, and also to make snacks. They loved my snacks.
In addition to First LEGO League, First offers three other levels of competition for your budding engineers:
- First LEGO League Jr. (ages 6-10) – designed to introduce STEM concepts while exciting them through a brand they know and love − LEGO
- First Tech Challenge – (grades 7-12) are challenged to design, build, program, and operate robots to play a floor game in an alliance format.
- First Robotics Competition – (grades 9-12) – Teams of 20 or more students are challenged to raise funds, design a team “brand,” hone teamwork skills, and build and program industrial-size robots to play a difficult field game against like-minded competitors.
Are you interested in starting your own First LEGO League team? If so, here’s the skinny:
- First LEGO League kicks off the season August 30, 2016.
- You can start a team with just a few kids but no more than 10.
- You can order materials at http://www.firstinspires.org/
- Don’t forget your LEGO Mindstorms Robotics kit (from Amazon or LEGO)!
Good luck and happy NerdBuilding!
More LEGO Robotics resources:
- LEGO.com – Straight from the Brick itself.
- EV3 Lessons – The Seshan Brothers have pulled together a series of tutorials for your team learn and grow their robotic skills. It’s in-depth and fun.
- Stemcentric – Online LEGO Mindstorm EV3 tutorials.
- LEGO Engineering – Developed by the Tufts Center for Engineering Education and Outreach (CEEO), with the support of LEGO Education and innovative teachers from around the globe, including the Engineering Design Group Educators