FIRST LEGO League: Excitement for Science and Technology at Boonshoft
By Jennifer Hanauer Lumpkin
For some, fall means colorful foliage, warm sweaters and the autumn harvest. For others it means football, family holidays and back-to-school. And for a steadily growing group of science-savvy students, mentors, coaches and volunteers, Fall means the season kick-off for FIRSTâ LEGOâ League (FLL), and the Boonshoft Museum of Discovery in Dayton will play host to their Regional Robotics Competition this December.
FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen, the inventor behind the Segway. “His thought was that we get all hyped up about college football and basketball, there ought to be something that’s equally as exciting for science and technology,” said Andy Bergeron, STEM coordinator and Evil Overlord of Robots at Boonshoft. In his own words, Kamen hopes “to transform our culture by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and technology leaders.”
Children may begin participating at as young as six years old with Junior FIRST LEGO League (Jr.FLL). FLL is designed for children grades 4-8, the next level of competition being FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) for grades 7-12, and then FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) for grades 9-12. “Every time you change age groups, the programming aspect and how you compete changes,” said Bergeron. Time commitments and the robotic challenges increase at each level.
At the beginning of each season in September, FLL teams are presented with a theme and a challenge in which they have to develop a robot built from parts entirely manufactured by LEGO. “This year the theme is Senior Solutions,” said Bergeron. “As our population grays and ages, we are presented with some pretty odd little things for seniors to be presented with. This year teams must have a senior advisor. They have to choose a person that’s over 60 years of age and they have to chat with them about a problem in their life, then they have to come up with a real world solution to this problem.”
Teams hold regular meetings after school and on weekends to conceive, plan, research, build and tune, and they’re doing it the same as teams around the world. “Kids in Tokyo, kids in Johannesburg, South Africa are working on the same engineering problems as kids are in Dayton, Ohio. I encourage my teams to do international outreach. Some teams Skype one another and they show each other little programming missions. You get kids from Ohio talking to kids in Tokyo and South Africa. That’s really a neat aspect,” Bergeron said.
The robot and the game challenges are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this kind of competition (or “co-opetition” as FIRST encourages). Judges are scoring on the whole package, and this includes the Core Values that are at the center of FIRST’s vision, namely gracious professionalism. “Gracious professionalism is in every single FIRST program. Everybody involved embodies it. You are competing with other teams, but you do it in a professional way,” said Justin Chu, 17-year-old FRC competitor, FTC mentor, violinist and Boy Scout. “It’s like companies working together to solve a greater problem.”
“This is the small business model, this is the corporate model,” said Bergeron. “These are skills that kids will take up, out and away from this program, and they’ll be able to implement them in their lives.”
Aside from scholarships and grants, participants have the opportunity to take away from the competition experiences that will benefit them for the rest of their lives. “You learn a lot of new skills that you’re going to have the rest of your life, whether or not this is the direction that you go,” said Cate Thomas, dancer, clarinetist and 12-year-old rookie team member of Powerstackers FTC 5029. “It doesn’t just teach you engineering. It teaches you problem solving and planning, gracious professionalism.”
Core Values have created a deep sense of community amongst these young minds, and given a renewed sense of sportsman-like behavior. “That’s why FLL has a home here at the museum, because we deeply and honestly believe in Core Values,” said Bergeron. “There’s that camaraderie, there’s that cooperation, there’s that communication that has to happen in Core Values. They have to write the deep background to be able to implement actual technological missions, they have to know why they wrote their program that way to bring it to market and they have to be able to communicate and cooperate to get to all of these things. These are tools and skills, abilities and the rationale and the philosophy to be able to compete and to understand in the 21st century.”
You all ready for this? Break out the foam fingers and megaphones, and come cheer on these robotic phenoms as they instill in each other a sense of community and a cooperative spirit unparalleled in any other competition. In parting, Bergeron gamely cautioned, “Beware, FLL might change your life.”
The FIRST LEGO League Regional Robotics Competition will take place at the Boonshoft Museum of Discovery on Saturday, Dec. 8 from noon to 3 p.m. in the Education Lobby. For more information about the robotics program at Boonshoft, visit www.boonshoftmuseum.org/areas-of-interest/robotics. To learn more about FIRST, visit www.usfirst.org.
Reach DCP freelance writer Jennifer Hanauer Lumpkin at firstname.lastname@example.org