Sport for the mind. This is exactly what the First Lego League (FLL) delivers on through an international robotics program that includes more than 200,000 kids in 63 countries. In Minnesota, High Tech Kids, a Minnesota organization dedicated to delivering fun, hands-on science, engineering and technology programs and events that inspire kids in their formative years, runs the FLL program locally as MN FLL. During the 2013-14 season 562 teams (comprised of 4-9 graders) competed in MN FLL, culminating on February 8 at Washington Magnet School in St. Paul where 66 of these teams had the opportunity to compete at the state championship in high-pressure, spirited competition.
The lego, math, engineering and science culture is alive and growing. And now girls are participating more in science and math oriented programs too. At two recent MN FLL competitions, it was impressive to see the number of kids involved and the hours of effort into this program by volunteers, coaches, teachers and participants alike. It was not by my doing that my 10 year-old daughter, Ava, became involved in GEMS (Girls in Engineering, Math and Science), a free program for students offered at her school. She was the instigator. After coming home totally jazzed about GEMS on day two of fifth grade, we agreed to let that be her new “sport” for the year.
I have to admit, I was a bit shocked. She struggled with math in third grade. Then something clicked in fourth grade. I attribute that to the fourth-grade teachers’ response to newfound research citing the importance of word problems in math and proactively implementing new daily word problems into the math curriculum at Hale school. It provided a great foundation for the real-world scenarios and problems they would solve through participation in programs like MN FLL.
The GEMS program at Field Middle School is run by their science teacher, Mary Hill, who has 30 years in the program and received the highest honor from MN FLL – Coach of the Year. Some schools’ science programs are run by volunteers and the level of involvement varies. Field GEMS meet for two hours every week throughout the course of the school year. Parents from other schools cited a schedule of once or twice a month over a more limited time during the school year.
Ava participated in the Hale Science Fair before (grades 2-4), which was individual and project based for one event. This program differed in its team structure (six girls) and problem to solve (each team solved for the same set of challenges). In GEMS, the teams consist of 5, 6 and 7th grade girls so there’s an element of teaching within the team itself. And because the playing field is level, every team can learn from other teams’ solutions.
It took me awhile to fully understand the structure of GEMS and their primary focus — preparing for the annual MN FLL competition. Information was not forthcoming from my daughter. My first immersion was the January 18th MN FLL round one competition. It ran from 7:30a.m. until 6:00p.m. I asked a ton of questions and finally formed an understanding of the program. In a nutshell, there is a robotic portion similar for all teams and an in-depth research project on a natural disaster and solutions that are each team’s own choice.
The challenge is set up so that each team has the same size 93″ x 45″ board with a 3.5″ high border and graphic overlay that represents the year’s theme of choice: Nature’s Fury. (see the full challenge details here). The context of programming the robots made of Legos involves solving real world challenges in a natural disaster, in this year’s case, a tsunami. The board involves simulated runways, roadways, roadblocks, buildings and people and animals. The task at hand is to program your robot, always released from the same corner starting point, to solve a series of challenges. Robotic arms trigger the launch of a cargo plane, a sweeping save of animals in a tree, the lifting of a house from the flood area, and the release of goods into areas where people need immediate aid.
Teams could choose their own natural disaster to investigate, considering the effects of the natural disaster on individuals and property. They were required to focus their research by identifying a challenge caused by the storm and create an innovative solution that could prevent or solve that problem. Ava’s team, We Will Rock You, chose landslides and how in the event of a landslide people could be notified, be prepared with a survival backpack and continually directed to safety via GPS throughout the course of the landslide.
The research component included online research which for Ava’s team meant viewing websites like redcross.com and survivalkitsonline.com for the survival backpack, interviews with local experts working in the field and dealing daily with public safety and survival during natural disasters, and research of GPS technology. The We Will Rock You team selected landslides because even though they’re most common in California and Colorado, they can happen in any state as in the case of last year’s landslide tragedy in Minnesota.
Seventy three teams competed in the day-long MN FLL regional competition at Anishinabe Academy on January 18 and three finalists advanced to the February 8 state tournament including Ava’s team which also won a design award (see the results here). Several similar competitions took place all around the state from late 2013 through early 2014 to narrow in to the 66 teams that would compete at state.
The day consisted of robotic challenges in 2:30 minute timeframes, eight teams per time. The room filled with nervous energy as two from each team went forward each time to live program and active the sequences of the challenge. The research portions were limited to five minutes where teams presented their projects, answered questions from the judges about the project and CORE values. These values enforce friendly competition and mutual gain are not separate goals and that helping each other is the foundation of teamwork.
She still seems jazzed about the program. And next year, she’ll have some younger teammates to mentor. I believe this is such an important program that sets girls up for success in science and math related fields. It’s not too young, in fact middle school is a critical time to foster this growth. We can all take cues from young people who serve as great role models — like the 10 year-old eco-blogger Hannah Alper (check out her Dec 5, 2013 TED Talk). I am so excited that Ava discovered this extra-curricular activity and sport for the mind that will fuel her passions about her ideas to change the world for the better. Rock on girls!