There’s nothing quite like robots to get kids excited about science and teamwork. Just a glimpse of the FIRST LEGO League (FLL) tournament demonstrates how electric the learning environment can be. The tournament is run like a sporting event, and the kids radiate energy as they watch their Lego robots compete to accumulate points.
FLL is a volunteer-led, after-school program that gets kids in grades 4-8 interested in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education and careers through the use of Lego robotics. Kids meet weekly to practice computer programming and tone social skills before they compete at the tournament with robot runs, teamwork exercises and research project presentations.
TEAM TECH MONKEYS
The Tech Monkeys is a team of six students, now in their fifth consecutive year together in FLL. The team was so excited after last year’s tournament that they decided to continue meeting throughout spring and summer, when most teams take a break. The students choose their own research topics and projects, while their coaches help to facilitate resources and materials.
“It is a very cool experience,” says Alaina Schleusner, grade 6. “It’s so exciting and fun!”
“Getting together and building stuff is the best,” chimes in Alaina’s teammate, Oliver Ciavarelli. “It helps us understand each other more, so we can get more ideas. We don’t just come up with one idea. We come up with lots of ideas! And then, we vote.”
Each year teams are challenged to find an innovative solution to a theme; this year’s theme is World Class. Students brainstorm ideas about how to improve learning. They meet once or twice a week in groups of up to 10 students to research, build and practice the core values of teamwork. “It is a totally awesome program,” says Deanna Schleusner, the Tech Monkeys’ coach. “I’m amazed at the ingenuity that the kids have. Their ideas range from very simple to extremely complex.”
The coaches also organize field trips or guest speakers relevant to the year’s topic, which encourages the kids to observe problem-solving techniques in real-world settings.
JUNIOR FIRST LEGO LEAGUE
Amanda Ebright heard about Jr. FLL and decided to take her family to the Expo to see what it was all about. “It was wonderful chaos,” she described. “The room was full of bright, enthusiastic kids. There were these amazingly sophisticated projects that these kids built, and they had to demonstrate their robots. It was very inspiring. I said to myself, I can do this. I can bring this to our school.”
The program at Rochester Arts and Sciences Academy is now in its second year and is so popular, they are planning to make a second team. The Junior FIRST LEGO League (Jr. FLL), for kindergarten through third grade, teaches kids about the topic and then encourages them to build something from their imaginations using innovation, tools and technology. They present their research with a poster and share it, first in an assembly at the school and then at the Expo.
“The real value is the weekly work, the process of learning through problem-solving and inquiry. The Expo is the culmination of all their hard work,” describes Ebright. “They get an enormous sense of accomplishment when it’s all over.”
The FIRST LEGO League tournament is January 10-11, 2015 from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Willow Creek Middle School in Rochester. The state level tournament is February 7 at Washington Technology Magnet School in St. Paul. Both events are free and open to the public. For more information or to start your own team, visit usfirst.org.
Amanda Wingren is a freelance writer in the Rochester area.