FIRST Lego League: Robotics & Tomorrow’s Engineers Creating innovative Solutions for Global Problems

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.

A new type of Superhero—ones who battle germs of all kinds. The Sanitizization 6 FLL team at World Festival, April 2010, after winning 3rd Place in the world for Robot Programming. The 3 men in the back are the coaches, from L to R: Mark Keup, Dan Dotson, and Fred Longley. Students: Heather Dotson, my son Jeff, Sammy Thompson, Danny Ringenoldus, Elias Holter, & David Longley.

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

Robot games at the Wisconsin state competition, December 2008. Coach Keup (left) looks on as students prepare and anticipate. William in front. Behind the table: team members David, Jeff, & Heather.
The team’s robot in fall of 2008.

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


Team “Two to the Ninth Dimension”, State Champions, December 2008. Coaches Fred Longley (left) and Mark Keup (right). From L to R: Nathan Keup (Mark’s son), Jeff, Sammy Thompson, William Xiong, and Heather Dotson (Dan’s daughter).
At the World Festival in Atlanta, the team accepts their award for 3rd place in the World for Innovative Design of the Robot. April 2009.
Jeffrey and I with the team’s World Festival trophy, April 2009. Note that it’s made of Legos.

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.

Cabbages are a main egg roll ingredient. Coach Dan Dotson is in the “window.”

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.

Jeff explaining robot features to the judges, State competition, fall 2009.
Sammy explains more about the robot to the judges (judge got cut off on far right). From L to R: David, Sammy, Heather, Danny, Elias, Jeff.
Jeff in his Superhero germ-fighting cape.

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.

Frustrated Jeff contemplating at the State competition. The robot did not perform as planned and the team had to do some on-the-spot problem solving before the next match.

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.

This is part of the brochure that Team Agent Hydro Hydroxide created: Robot Design Process Guide. Jeff is pictured demonstrating a robot part.
Team Agent Hydro Hydroxide’s project was a rainwater harvesting system.

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.

The FTC Supposable Thumbs team, regionals at UW-Milwaukee, Fall 2012.

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:


FIRST’s Core Values

FIRST’s Vision and Mission

FIRST Lego League

FIRST Tech Challenge

If you want to start an FLL Team 

How have you been positively impacted by a coach or mentor?

I’d love to hear from you!

Ever musing,


P.S. Next time meet engineer and robotics mentor, Dan Dotson, and learn some engineering problem-solving techniques.

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11 thoughts on “FIRST Lego League: Robotics & Tomorrow’s Engineers Creating innovative Solutions for Global Problems

  1. It would not be surprising to hear that much of Jeff’s inspiration in his filmmaking endeavors comes from his years in robotics. It has been a thrill to see the excitement of students in our district who participate in these engineering opportunities. There were several mentors who were profound influences for me . The one who had the largest impact was my piano teacher, Mrs. Conkell! I never became the music teacher I had originally planned to be, but her influence definitely shaped my life in the right direction. I could never say thank you enough to her!!!

    1. That’s the great thing about mentors. Even if a person doesn’t go into the particular area he was coached in, a mentor is much more than a coach/teacher in robotics, piano, basketball, or whatever. A mentor models and guides us through the development of life skills that will help us in whatever we end up doing. Here’s to the Mrs. Conkels of the world!

  2. This is amazing stuff! I had no idea this even existed! How impressive that this organization was developed in the first place, and that it is flourishing twenty years later. The creativity is off the charts. We need more logical, gracious, cooperative problem solvers in the world. And we need more Lego trophies and eggroll fundraisers!
    How fun is that!
    Looks like you have great memories of these years. I could see a couple of my grandsons being intrigued by FIRST Lego League!

    1. Yes, it is amazing how FLL took off and grew so big in just 20 years.

      I hope you can introduce FLL to your grandsons. Find out where the teams are in your area.

  3. I love the idea of creativity as a way to solve world problems, or just everyday monotonies. I find myself constantly creating ways to do menial tasks more efficiently. I would be curious as to whether innovative solutions of this nature have occurred to make the 7000 egg rolls over one weekend 🙂

    1. Good question! It’s been a few years since I’ve been involved with the egg roll making, so I don’t know. But my guess is yes. It takes a lot to organize this venture efficiently with dozens of volunteers and tons of cabbage and egg roll wrappers!

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