Stem Comes First

Building Robots & Communication with First Lego League

By Josher Lumpkin

It’s no secret the Miami Valley region has a history as a bastion for innovators and inventors. Whether it’s the airplane or the cash register, the parachute or pop-top, so many gadgets, devices, and doodads were conceived of or perfected right here in our area.

There’s a group of enterprising kids and helpful coaches who wish to continue that tradition. The FIRST program takes ordinary kids and turns them into trailblazers and pioneers, nurturing a fascination with the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math).

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was founded in 1989 in a New Hampshire gymnasium by inventor Dean Kamen.

“He’s the guy who invented the Segway, portable insulin pump, just all sorts of inventions,” says Skip Gridley, volunteer and judge advisor for FIRST in Dayton, as well as a senior aerospace engineer at the U.S. Air Force Research Lab. “[Kamen’s] latest project was a bionic arm for DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration].”

Guided by his vision of sparking interest in STEM to high schoolers, eventually FIRST grew to become something much more.

“He started a robotics competition with a friend of his named Woodie Flowers, who was a professor at MIT. And it started out as just this robotics competition,” Gridley tells us. “It started out with high school teams and has grown to be K-12.”

There are four levels: FIRST LEGO League Jr. (for grades K-4), FIRST LEGO League (grades 4-8), FIRST Tech Challenge (grades 7-12), and FIRST Robotics Competition (9-12).

“In FIRST LEGO League, their robots are small and built out of LEGO, which is not to say that they’re not still pretty complicated and cool. But then, the high school level FIRST Robotics Competition they’re 140 pounds, hydraulics, machine parts… that kind of stuff,” Gridley explains.

But what’s this competition about, anyway? Do the kids build these robots, only to program them to fight each other to the death, in a robot war?

“No,” Gridley says. “One of the focuses that Woodie Flowers brought was the concept of gracious professionalism on the field. And, that’s our kind of sportsmanship. His idea was you want to do your best, but you want the other team to do their best, too, because that way if you win, then you’ve beaten the best of the best.”

Every year, there’s a new season of FIRST. With each season, all four levels will have their own individual robot games or challenges.

“They always try to pick a theme that’s relevant that the people can pretty well understand and has something to do with what’s going on in the world,” Gridley says.

For instance, last year’s FIRST LEGO League project was “Trash Trek.” The teams literally or figuratively followed trash along its journey from the moment it is discarded, through the collection and sorting processes, all the way to its final resting place or recycling center. The kids then identified ways the process might be tightened up, shortened, or otherwise made more efficient.

This year’s FIRST LEGO League theme is “Animal Allies.” It focuses on strengthening humans’ relationship with our furry friends by making the processes through which we engage them more efficient or less invasive. For the Robot Game, teams will build robots to manipulate LEGO simulations of human/animal interactions. Like in one of the missions, “Feeding,” teams program a robot to get different foods out of a refrigerator and deliver it to one of four different animals: bananas to the gorilla, shrimp to the flamingo, etc.

In FIRST Tech Challenge and FIRST Robotics Competition, teams build specialized robots to compete in a game. At the beginning of the season, the game is explained so that teams can create a robot that is primed for its individual objective. The games are competitive, but also cooperative because, often, a game will be played by two sets of teams allied against the other two. Halfway through gameplay, the alliances change and players compete against the team with whom they had just had an alliance.

“FIRST, in general, encourages a lot of sharing of ideas,” Gridley says. “You’ll have a team break apart, and other teams will donate or give them parts or help them fix their robot. Or, ‘Hey, we don’t know how to program something,’ and the other team will send their programmer over to help out. Well, part of the reason is, during the course of a competition, someone who you compete with in one round may be on your alliance three rounds from now.”

Gridley says FIRST events are different from other extracurriculars. Roaring crowds go wild for their school’s teams. Kids who have tech smarts are lauded as if they were the football team’s star quarterback.

“I discovered that the first time I ever went to an event,” Gridley recalls. “These kids are going nuts. I mean, they’re cheering, they’ve got mascots, they’ve got all kinds of crazy stuff, and they’re cheering just as much for other teams as they are for their team.”

“This is a reason that the FIRST programs are so phenomenal,” says Brenda Ronnebaum, director of FIRST LEGO League Ohio. “There’s a huge communication component here, and a lot of your stereotypical engineers need some help there. And so, the kids who are FIRST alum are engineers with strong speaking skills and collaboration skills.”

David Dunn, a FIRST coach as well as senior sustainment engineer at University of Dayton Research Institute (UDRI), says though his stories of kids improving themselves through the program are many, the ones in which they grow in ways other than STEM are some of the most fascinating.

“We had one sixth-grader on my team who didn’t say a word the first few weeks,” Dunn shares. “One important aspect of the program is speaking with judges, which we work on a lot throughout the season. By the end of the season, he was the one in front talking about the team and what they had accomplished. It was extremely gratifying to see him stretch himself and grow so much in six months.”

It’s all part of a challenge that will have hundreds of teams all over the state competing for a spot in the nationals next April.

“The goal is to kind of use robotics to, in some ways, trick the kids into learning about and getting excited about STEM and entrepreneurship,” Gridley says. “We also want to give them skills like problem solving, being able to speak their ideas…That’s sort of where the judging part comes in. You have a competition, so you give these kids a chance to be on a team and work with other people and learn from mentors, but also have that sort of team environment that they may or may not get from sports.”

Founder Dean Kamen says it best when he refers to FIRST as “the sport in which every one of these kids can turn pro.”

“Things like that,” Gridley remarks. “His idea was that if you celebrate what you want people to do then that’s what they’ll turn to and that’s what they’ll get excited about.”

Ronnebaum agrees. As not only director of FIRST LEGO League Ohio but also a contractor at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ronnebaum works closely with the Educational Outreach Office to snag kiddos who show potential and aptitude in the STEM fields.

“It’s future workforce development, right?” Ronnebaum asks rhetorically. “We’re trying to make sure there are opportunities for future engineers and to get them interested at a really young age. So Wright-Patt supports us in that role. The FIRST LEGO League program, and FIRST LEGO League Jr., and FIRST Robotics Competition are part of achieving that whole mission.”

But FIRST isn’t just for the tech-savvy kids. The program relies on many adult volunteers, as well. Coaches, mentors, judges, and event volunteers ensure things run smoothly and help kids get the most out of FIRST. Contrary to what you might think, not all positions require technical expertise.

Gridley says Dayton’s innovative history means there is a good source of mentors here.

“When you show adults these kinds of things, they get pretty jazzed and want to help out,” he adds.

In FIRST competitions, judges look at much more than just the coolness factor of a robot or whether or not a team was able to complete its mission.

“For FIRST LEGO League, we have three sets of judges,” Gridley explains.

There are robot design judges, who critique mechanical design, programming, strategy, and innovation of robots.

“We have a rubric for each area, so there’s specific criteria of what we’re looking for,” Gridley says. Then there are project judges, “looking at how the team looked at the problem, what kind of solution they developed, and then how well they presented it.”

Finally, there are core values judges, “looking for teamwork, how well they worked as a team together,” Gridley continues. “We’re looking for that gracious professionalism, how well they supported each other’s ideas and other teams’ ideas. And then, inspiration, which is how well they balance all three aspects of FIRST LEGO League, how they’d been excited by it, that kind of stuff.”

With so many children going through FIRST every year, volunteers have seen their share of success stories.

“I could tell you any number of stories,” Gridley says. “There’s some kids I met from Cincinnati who’ve gone on to become engineers. There’s people I’ve met at competitions who had no clue about robotics, and now they’ve gone on to MIT and places like that.”

“There was one team from New Hampshire who actually was in Dayton during the season called ‘Smart Move,’ which focused on transportation,” Gridley remembers. They went on to be on the TV show Shark Tank, to present their invention for a smart driving wheel.”

“We have a lot of anecdotal evidence about that,” Ronnebaum shares. “The most common thing that we hear about is kids that get into the program because they like LEGOS or because there’s a creativity component to this. There’s a research component. Kids get in it for other things and find that they’re really interested in engineering when they didn’t know it before.”

Dunn, who has worked with FIRST in several parts of the country, says the most significant impact he’s seen from the program has been right here in the Miami Valley, working with BONDS FIRST Robotics Challenge team. BONDS is an acronym for “Bringing Opportunities Near Dayton Students,” but is two-fold.

“It also speaks to bonding the community,” Dunn explains. “The team is composed of Dayton kids and Oakwood kids. The combination has been fantastic. They have learned a lot about STEM and the design process, but more importantly they have learned about themselves and each other. They have had a chance to interact with a group of kids they would not normally have had the chance to. Through that, they have made some great new friends and realized the differences they share are what make them stronger as a team. Through mutual respect, they are able to get the best out of each other’s diverse backgrounds to build a stronger team together.”

For more information about FIRST, please visit For more information on FIRST LEGO League Ohio, please visit For more information on BONDS FIRST Robotics Competition, please visit 



Josher Lumpkin is a nursing student and aspiring historian who enjoys writing about music and geekdom of all kinds. He is especially fond of punk rock, tabletop gaming, sci-fi/fantasy and camping with his wife, Jenner, and their dogs, Katie and Sophie. Reach him at

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Josher Lumpkin is a nursing student and aspiring historian who enjoys writing about music and geekdom of all kinds. He is especially fond of punk rock, tabletop gaming, sci-fi/fantasy and camping with his wife, Jenner, and their dogs, Katie and Sophie. Reach him at

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