Bragging on EVERYONE’S kids: Robotic Coopertition

As those of you who might have dropped in yesterday already know, Janie and I spent all day Saturday at the regional FIRST LEGO League robotics challenge, which is part of the fifth-grade curriculum at Jane’s school.

LEGO Robots for school credit. In fifth grade.  I know.

There were thirty teams of about five to ten kids each running around the enormous venue—even more teams met Sunday—plus coaches, parents, judges, referees, volunteers, and the robots.  The teams had great names like Geek Chic and LEGO my Robot, and tee shirts, and some of them had matching—or themed—hats.  The judges and refs had crazy hats, too, and the entire atmosphere was one of intense, exhausting fun.

This year’s challenge was called Nature’s Fury and each team had to complete four parts, which were scheduled in no particular order.

Teams had to find solutions to the problems created by a flood, tsunami, volcano, wildfire, etc., and do  presentation skits explaining the need for and effectiveness of their ideas.

They also had to program their robots to perform certain tasks that would be of assistance during a natural disaster.  They had two and a half minutes and three separate tries to complete the tasks on  a table equipped with LEGO pieces:

Trial Table

The remaining sections included a technical interview, in which they explained the design of their robot, the programming, and the logic behind both to several professional engineers who asked pointed questions that required in-depth answers.  I was extremely impressed with the kids’ understanding of what they were doing and their poise in explaining it, even if some of the vocabulary went right over my head.

The final section was the Core Values interview, in which I assume they answered questions focused on the teamwork and cooperation parts of their preparations.  I have to assume this, as parents and coaches were not invited and the kids were instructed not to talk about the interview.  And they didn’t.  Period.

I didn’t mind at all—or not much, anyway—because a big part of what I loved about the day was how polite and friendly everyone was, and what a blast everyone was having—both within each team and as a whole participatory group.

If something didn’t work, a team would reset and tried something a little different, without complaint or accusation, while their teammates—and everyone else—clapped and called encouragement.   People held doors for each other and gave directions—and helped carry things for other teams, too.

There was no booing or comparing of points between teams, either—everyone cheered for everyone, never against.

It was a revelation.

The set-up encouraged this: the teams weren’t competing directly, they were earning points, which made them too busy trying beating their own best score (only the best score counted in the timed trials) to mind that others were doing the same thing.

But from the first time the kids were told about the program  at the beginning of the school year  to and through the entire day of the challenge, the continuing emphasiswas on “friendly coopertition”  and “gracious professionalism”.   Even by the end, when the adults were exhausted—and so very, very footsore—and the kids had passed beyond energetic right into spastic squirrel territory, we were still in this together.

I Robot

Plus, you know, the robots were so cool.

And so are these kids.  All the kids.

I’m so proud of Janie’s team—all the teams—for their hard work, and how they learned not only how to program a real robot and to consider all aspects of a potential invention—from problem to solution, usability to cost, cultural ramifications to effective marketing—but also to consider each other’s opinions, brainstorm and discuss without arguments, and how step aside for the good of the team.

These five kids became good friends along the way—and all of them said they wanted to do it again next year, even though it will mean twice as much work outside of class.  We parents thought this was a great idea, too.

Regardless of score, or of the recognition they received for their design, those last two paragraphs is what made this challenge a total success.

But next year?

I’m taking my pedometer, ’cause I would have flipped that thing by three o’clock—whew!