What We Learned From FIRST LEGO League

It is mid-November, and this past weekend, our Classroom Antics sponsored team, the MindBlasters, took home the Best Robot Design award. The picture of them holding their trophy shows how proud they were of their achievement!

I was one of four dads that helped mentor our kids through this big complex competition called FIRST LEGO League (also called FLL for short). This competition can be overwhelming, even for adults. And since our kids were 8-9 years old, they were also the youngest, which added even more challenges.

Now that the event is over, I wanted to recap my thoughts from this competition in hopes of making other parents aware of what to expect and prepare for.

Age of Participants

FIRST LEGO League (FLL) is made for kids 9-14 years old. If your child is turning 9 during the competition year, they can qualify for being 9 years old.

Most kids in this competition were 11-14 years old. Being 9 is a big challenge. Kids that are 9 do not usually have the attention span for all the tasks and activities needed to do well in this league. This doesn’t mean they shouldn’t compete, it just means you could have challenges getting your kids to focus on their project work.

FLL is a Lot of Work

This league is not for the faint of heart. There is a lot of work. Distinctly three different scoring components exist for this competition.

  1. Core Values – Kids must demonstrate and discuss the FLL Core Values to judges and explain how they use them in every day life. Our kids didn’t score well here, as we had a hard time understanding what was required.
  2. Project – For 2012, the project was called Senior Solutions, and our kids were tasked with finding a problem that seniors have and finding a solution to that problem. Teams must interview many people to research the problem, work together as a team to find multiple solutions, and finalize on one of those solutions. A poster board should also be made to illustrate the progress they made during the project. We had too much parental involvement in this area, mostly because our kids were not focused, they kept playing during our meetings instead of doing work. As a result, our poster board looked too professional, not like a child would have made it.
  3. Robot Challenges – This is the area that most people think of when they think of robotic competitions. Unfortunately, the scoring is not weighted heavily in this category like most would think. Our MindBlasters team was EXCELLENT in this category, placing 2nd in a field of 7 teams! Very proud of our team on what they accomplished there.

To our surprise, even though we got 2nd place in the Robot Challenges, we didn’t even get the 4th place alternate spot to move on to the Akron regional competition. We didn’t spend enough time working on Core Values and the Senior Solutions project to get enough points to move on. This is a big part of the competition that I wish we understood better when we began the process in August.

FLL and Junior FFL are Very Different

FIRST has a Junior FIRST LEGO League, which is a very easy-going competition for younger LEGO lovers who want to eventually become involved in the more-exciting FLL competition. They use LEGO WeDo kits instead of LEGO Mindstorms kits, and the age range is closer together, so kids don’t have such a huge advantage like 14 year olds have in the FLL competition.

Robot Building Guide

When building your robot during competition, you must use one and only one robot base. That means that you can only use 1 NXT brick and 3 motors. When we first started, we built 3 different robots thinking we could pull one off the board and put another one on. Nope. Not allowed. You must use the same NXT brick during the competition.

James Jeffrey Trobaugh wrote a nice book about winning FLL robot competition design. Don’t be afraid to try out these robot models. The book also has great references on how to attack multiple challenges by zones.

Final Thoughts

With all this being said, I recommend parents try to get involved with FLL. I highly recommend taking a robotics class first so your kids know how the LEGO Mindstorms kits work. And prepare yourself for the time commitment needed. You should meet with your team 3-4 hours per week, each week, from September to mid-November. If you know someone who has participated in an FLL competition before, recruit them onto your team! Their knowledge is so valuable to your success (and happiness) when you compete. When you are ready to move forward, learn how to start a FIRST LEGO League team!