Goofy hats, colorful T-shirts with crazy logos, flowing capes, and loud, pounding music. Where am I? You might think it’s a Halloween party. Nope. I’m at a FIRST Lego League (FLL) robotics competition.
The wacky get-ups are just one aspect of the fun. Students wear attire related to their team’s project. You never know what you might see at an FLL competition. In 2007, one team wore dome-shaped hats made of chicken wire that had live plants growing in them (more on that below).
My son Jeffrey had the opportunity to be involved in FLL robotics for four years (4th to 7th grade, 2008 – 2012) and First Tech Challenge (FTC, 2012 – 2013) for one year (8th grade) at Heritage Christian School (HCS) in the Milwaukee area. He also had the good fortune to be mentored by gifted coaches.
The leaders included the HCS robotics program director Mark Keup and fellow engineer Dan Dotson, both still actively coaching. Those five years were instrumental as Jeffrey improved mechanical skills, learned teamwork, and built confidence . . . while building robots.
During the first year’s regional competition, my shy son stepped forward to speak with confidence to adult judges about the apparatus he’d made for the robot. I was blown away!
FIRST Lego League. FIRST is an acronym: For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. The Legos are the building blocks for making robots. Using LEGO Mindstorms software technology, the teams (ages 9 – 14) design, build, and program a robot that competes on a tabletop playing field.
But it’s not just about robots. Each team researches a particular real world problem and proposes a solution, depending on the year’s theme. Themes vary from food safety, energy, and health, to recycling, weather, transportation, and more.
The ultimate mission of FIRST:
Inspiring the science and technology leaders of tomorrow.
FIRST is a not-for-profit organization for training in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). The problem solving knows no end. Along the way, students develop critical thinking skills. They are judged for their presentation and creativity as well.
Ever vital is adherence to the Core Values, one of which is Gracious Professionalism. Which is why you see rival teams helping, mentoring, and encouraging each other in the spirit of coopertition–that is, cooperative competition.
FIRST Lego League originated in 1998 when FIRST founder Dean Kamen joined forces with Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, owner of the LEGO Group. Now, twenty years later, this has exploded into 27,000 FLL teams worldwide.
When Jeff joined in fourth grade, he was the youngest kid on the team and benefitted from the expertise and mentoring of his older peers. Many gifted students made up the team, but I believe a huge part of their success was the guidance of the adult mentors.
Jeff particularly enjoyed designing and building the robot, constructed with Legos. He came up with innovative ideas that helped the robot better perform its 15 to 25 tasks on a 4 x 8 table. Such tasks included pushing buttons, picking up rings, moving items from spot A to spot B, and more. Points are awarded for each task, depending on its difficulty.
“The key part of this game is that the robots
are completely autonomous, meaning that they must move
only based on programmed instructions and adaptation
to the environment using sensors.
This is quite a challenge for 4th through 8th graders,
especially considering that they must solve it all
in a pressure-packed 2 minute, 30 second match.”
–Coach Mark Keup
Originally, the FLL team was self-funded until their third year (2008) when they won state. Since then, the team has had many generous sponsors over the years:
• Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE, sponsored 2009 – 2017)
• Rockwell Automation (often paying entry fee to Worlds and Super Regionals, paying annual registration, buying robot parts, and more)
• Linear Graphics of Milwaukee (huge discount printing on T-Shirts, and more)
• Robotic Solutions of New Berlin (donated a brand-new Lathe/Mill for the team)
• Jet Cuts of New Berlin (donated water jetting of metal for making last year’s robot)
• Hy-Tec Coatings of Waukesha (donated powder coating for last year’s worlds robot to make it look awesome)
• Retired couple Gary & Mary Keup (donated money for equipment and cash, hauled gear across the country to long range events over 20 times)
In 2007, the year before Jeff joined, the team did a project at the Milwaukee’s Mitchell Park Domes. The domes house a desert oasis, a tropical jungle, and floral gardens.
“That year’s FLL theme was energy management.
The students had to pick a building in their area
to do an energy audit on and then develop solutions
to help make the building more energy efficient.
That team spent numerous hours at the domes learning
how it operated and came up with not one solution,
but twelve unique solutions to help
make the building more efficient.”
–Coach Mark Keup
Thus, the team’s dome-shaped hats made of chicken wire and live plants.
Here’s the rundown of Jeff’s five robotics years, including each year’s theme, project, and awards. Though I’m very proud of my son’s contribution to this team and its success, I’m sharing this to emphasize the WHOLE TEAM’s hard work coupled with the commitment and guidance of its MENTORS. Coaches Mark Keup and Dan Dotson (and others) have guided this team for twelve and ten years, respectively, growing it into the Champion Team it is today (more on that later). You’ll see why here, where they first started planting the seeds a decade ago.
2008 – 2009
Theme: Climate Connections (weather solutions)
Team: #512 Two to the Ninth Dimension
Project: designed a Tornado-proof Hospital
Regionals, Nov 23, 2008 at Thomas Moore HS, Milwaukee:
—won Best Robot Design Award
–in top 4 teams for Champion
State, Dec. 2008 at Mukwanego HS:
–nominated for Creative Presentation Award
–nominated for Build Award (Robot Design Award)
—won 2nd Place Robot Performance Award
—won 1st Place Champion’s Award
International/World Festival, April 15-18, 2009 in Atlanta, Georgia,
at the Georgia Dome:
—won 3rd Place IN THE WORLD for Innovative (Robot) Design
This was amazing beyond belief! It was Jeffrey’s first year and he had contributed a unique feature to the robot design, as part of an already excellent team. We had a great week competing against eighty-plus teams from 20 states and 60 countries. We explored Atlanta’s Coke Museum and Aquarium as well.
But before that happened, a lot of fund-raising occurred. After winning state, we made a flier to reach the school and community. It included student testimonials:
“Lego League has given me an opportunity to work in a team.
It is fun to learn about tornadoes (our project topic),
mechanics, problem solving, being gracious professionals,
programming, and thinking strategically. I am co-pilot of the robot
and this has helped me to think ahead and to think fast.
I hope that many other kids get to have the experience too someday.”
–Heather Dotson, 14
“I am the chief programmer for our team.
I think FLL has been an exciting experience for the whole team.
I have learned many more ways of communication,
as well as teamwork, and a whole lot of programming.
The team has really become a team this year.
When one person accomplishes, we all accomplish,
but when one person falls, we all fall.
But we all can eventually pick up where we left off.”
–David Longley, 8th grade
“Lego League is awesome because I learned a lot about technology
and programming robots and building with Legos.
There are four parts of Lego League–the project, the teamwork,
the robot performance, and the technical part.
My favorite thing is the problem-solving,
such as when the robot didn’t go where it needed to go.”
–Jeff, age 10
All the parents were very involved with fund raising and most of us joined the team in Atlanta for World Festival.
One of our biggest fund raisers was making and selling egg rolls, igniting an annual egg roll tradition. The Xiong family, whose son William was on the team, taught us how to make them en masse. Ten years later, the Heritage robotics team still makes them. Every February/March, the team, parents, and volunteers make 8000 to 9000 egg rolls (the numbers increase yearly). By now, that’s close to 75,000 egg rolls total.
Currently, on a typical egg roll-making weekend, the manpower amounts to 20 people for 4 hours on Friday night, plus 30 people for 8 hours on Saturday. That doesn’t include the pre-planning, post-event management, and selling time. Volunteer time comes close to the 400-500 hour range each year.
Teams are judged on Teamwork, Project,
Technical (robot design and programming),
and Robot Performance.
TEAMWORK: In a room alone with the team, judges assign a task to be completed in just a few minutes. For example, they might tell you to build a house with the materials on hand, such as cardboard, newspapers, tape, and popsicle sticks. The judges watch how they work as a team.
At State (2008), the judges said to build a ramp that would stop a marble from rolling off the table. The materials were paper clips, a pan, a piece of paper, popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners, and a stack of books on a table.
PROJECT: With the theme Climate Connections (2008), our team chose to research monolithic domes—their solution to hospital safety during a tornado. To display their research and knowledge, they wrote and performed a skit about surgery taking place in an ordinary hospital when a tornado comes. It destroys everything. Then they replayed the scene in a monolithic dome hospital where surgery could continue unabated. (Jeff was the patient.)
TECHNICAL: In the judging room, the team demonstrates the robot with its various attachments, the team’s favorite mission, and the computer programs.
PERFORMANCE: This is the loudest part, the most intense, and the most public. The robots compete in front of a huge crowd of parents and other teams in a gym. Yet this category is not any more important than the others. Teams aim for their robot to complete each task for a total of 400 points. All the lights in the gym are out except for the light over the competition table. Each team get three chances throughout the day, for the best out of three rounds. (The 3 rounds are not cumulative.)
Another fun thing that year was that channel 12 meteorologist Mark Baden spoke to the team at school.
2009 – 2010
Theme: Smart Moves (transportation issues)
Team: #222 Sanitizization Six
Project: designed a self-cleaning, germ-fighting Airplane Bathroom with a UV light that shows germs
Regionals, Nov. 14, 2009, Thomas More HS, Milwaukee:
—won Project Award
State, Dec 2009, in Osseo, WI:
–Honorable Mention Design Award
–Honorable Mention Project Award
–Honorable Mention Teamwork Award
—won Champion’s Award, 2nd year in a row
International/World Festival, April 2010 in Atlanta, Georgia,
at the Georgia Dome:
—won 3rd Place IN THE WORLD for Programming
–earned 370/400 points in robot games
Another huge thrill! Though Coach Keup felt the team equally had the potential to win the Robot Design award, the students doing programming—David and Heather—were amazing and deserving. (Jeff had nothing to do with programming.)
Since FIRST is all about encouragement, teams are limited to winning one award per competition. So if you end up winning the Champion’s Award, you won’t get first place in other areas, even if you place first. They want other teams to leave with awards, too.
In the February, 2010 Cue section, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel carried an article about this year’s team, the Sanitizization Six (yes, that’s how they wanted to spell it). Also featured was the second Heritage FLL team, the Jet Pack Llamas, formed that year due to increased interest.
In fifth grade, on a team of 4th to 8th graders, Jeff became the design captain. He made an arm apparatus to get two high rings on the poles and one low ring on the other end of the table. He also made an attachment to consistently space the robot from the wall and finished a program to get the three rings and get back to base.
2010 – 2011
Theme: Body Forward Challenge (human mobility)
Team: #1628 Migratory Coconuts
Project: designed a Prosthetic Arm with swappable hands for different functions, controlled by tapping into chest muscles, driven by a backpack computer and power supply. The team learned about this when visiting the Marquette and MSOE Biomedical Engineering departments.
Regionals, Nov. 21, 2010, Marquette, Milwaukee:
–Honorable Mention Teamwork Award
–Honorable Mention Robot Design Award
–Honorable Mention Robot Design Award
–Honorable Mention Project Award
—won 1st Place Champion’s Award; went on to State
State, Dec. 2010, Oak Creek, WI:
–several Honorable Mentions
—won 1st Place Teamwork Award
No World Festival this year. But NOT placing high and NOT receiving a Champion’s award did NOT mean NOT winning. In other words, the coaches were all about doing one’s best and focusing on problem solving, developing critical thinking skills, and helping each other. Success isn’t just evidenced by the end product. The process counts just as much.
And there were hurdles to jump over at this event.
In the midst of unexpected robot behavior and limited time, the Migratory Coconuts team came together to solve the robot problem. Their cooperation and hard work did not go unnoticed by the judges. They placed 1st for Teamwork.
Also this year, for a variety of reasons, Jeff left Heritage in 6th grade and attended school at a brand new charter school: Waukesha STEM Academy (WSA). Fortunately, he was still able to participate in Heritage’s FLL team. He now had the benefit of a STEM education based on integrating subjects into a holistic project-oriented, problem-solving model.
Jeff brought his FLL skills into his WSA classroom efforts. In sixth grade, the top six of ten Future Cities competed at Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) in January, 2011. One of those cities was Jeff’s group.
2011 – 2012
Theme: Food Factor (keeping food safe)
Team: #136 Agent Hydro Hydroxide
Project: Improved rainwater harvesting with a bio-gravitational filtering system for rural Brazil, with global impact.
Regionals, Nov. 2011, Mukwanago HS:
–nominated for Robot Strategy & Innovation Award
–nominated for Programming Award
–nominated for Robot Design Award (perfect Score)
—won 2nd Place Robot Performance Award (out of 129 attempts from all robots)
—won 2nd Place Champion’s Award; went on to State
State, Dec. 11, 2011, Mukwanego HS:
–nominated for Robot Design Innovation Award
–nominated for Gracious Professionalism Award
–was considered for 3 Project Awards: Research Quality, Innovative Solution, & Creative Presentation
–18th out of 60 in robot runs
–earned highest possible scores in 23 of 28 categories
—won 1st Place Teamwork Award
This year, Jeff researched and created the robot’s forklift design.
No World Festival for Heritage in April, 2012, but Jeff wanted to head to St. Louis for purposes of watching and cheering on the high school’s FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) team. So he and I took another road trip.
The next year, in eighth grade, Jeff could have been on FLL one more year but took the opportunity to move on to FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC, 8th – 12th grade). FTC focuses more on robots (larger ones) without the science project. Jeff was the Mechanical Designer.
2012 – 2013 FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC)
Team: #4106 Supposable Thumbs
–focuses on robot design & programming for completing tasks, and making alliances to compete with
Regionals at UW-Milwaukee, Jan. 28, 2013:
–nominated for Motivate Award
–won 3rd Place for Inspire (meaning top in all categories)
–won 4th Place in Robot Performance
–won 2nd place on Finalist Alliance
–won 2nd (or 3rd?) Place for Inspire Award out of 25 teams (top in all categories)
—won Think Award for Design Process and Engineering (CAD) Notebook
No State or World Festival for HCS this year, but FTC teams are able to compete in different regional events around the country. Jeff’s team went to the Kentucky State Championship in Feb, 2013, where they finished in 2nd place in a finalist alliance, won the Think Award, and won 2nd place for Inspire. They knocked out two captains for world finals in the semi-finals.
At Waukesha STEM Academy, Jeff’s team won 3 awards for their invention at the first Invention Convention in January, 2013. All 300 students participated. Coming in second for performance, Jeff’s team won design champions, portfolio champions, and grand champions. Their invention was a fluid arm powered by hydraulics. I believe that the skills he acquired in FLL and FTC definitely played into his school success.
For a variety of reasons, Jeff didn’t continue in FTC, but in high school, he was enrolled in the Waukesha Engineering Preparatory Academy. Now he is off to college with an interest in filmmaking. Though he didn’t go the engineering route, I’m grateful for his FLL and FTC experiences.
I’m especially grateful for the role of the robotics coaches who were instrumental in Jeff’s personal growth for five years. Though the students involved were innately talented, I believe that dedicated, inspiring, and gifted mentors made all the difference.
Find more information here:
How have you been positively impacted by a coach or mentor?
I’d love to hear from you!
P.S. Next time meet engineer and robotics mentor, Dan Dotson, and learn some engineering problem-solving techniques.