Three things we learned at the FLL competitions

Competitions, for students (like deadlines for adults) concentrate the mind.

The FLL regional tournament last Saturday at Hamilton High School did just that. After months of prep, building the missions, and customizing a robot, it was prime time for them. Also a time when the slightest mistakes get embarrassingly magnified.

My school, Salt River Elementary, fielded two teams this year. We added a girls’ team, after an explosion in interest in our robotics club. This year, we focused heavily on our project for the boy’s team. Robots and seniors are being debated a lot now. From the movie Robot and Frank on one end of the scale, to the ethics of ‘caring’ robots like Paro in nursing homes, at the other. They chose locomotion and shoes that avoid obstacles as their Senior Solution.

The girl’s team did amazingly well. They ran six missions, garnering a whopping 302 points! The boy’s team, with less missions, got half as much. But as we, and FLL stresses, the real wins are the lessons learned; the shared knowledge (‘coopertition’ in FLL-speak). So here’s what I (we) learned:

1. Everyone needs to know each other’s part. Not just as a Plan B, but when it gets to explaining your robot and what it sets out to do. The team knew their missions, but they didn’t have a clear story. Coaches aren’t allowed in the room but I gathered that they left the talking to a few.

2. Don’t put ‘Fun’ above everything else. Here I take a contrarian stand. Most people say that “it has to be fun” for the kids. I’m a parent; I’ve gone through this before –seeing how the entertainment side of education and make a few challenging steps seem boring; too hard; no fun! Real life isn’t always fun, fun. One of our robots got ‘compromised’ (to use a gentle word) because too many students were having fun with a mechanical arm. The team soon learned that under the right (wrong) circumstances, moving parts can and will fail. One round bombed. The girls’ team even dropped the robot a few minutes before they got to the table! That was painful –not fun. There’s a reason that of the 8 Core Values of FLL, ‘We have Fun’ is at the bottom of the list. Robotics is serious. The challenges are cool, the tournament is a riot. But it’s the place where we ought to have serious fun.

3. Keep it Simple. Our mentor, Bill Johnson, stresses this a lot. He could show the students complicated programming, but he tries to let them discover the simple workarounds. This also applies to demonstrating their project. I talked to a lot of teams who had very complicated, very inspiring projects involving solar lights, micro-processors etc. I encouraged my team to describe their project, an exo-skeleton, and a shoe with an embedded chip in hand-drawings. I didn’t swoop in to fix their typos. They attempted to do it using rap. Rap! Could they have chosen a simpler format?

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