“Our robot looks like a centaur," said Vishwak, “Like those half-horse, half-humans in the movies."
Vishwak Pabba is one of the members of the Dynamic Droids, a team of four eleven-year-olds competing in the FIRST Lego League (FLL®) tournament in Folsom, California. Created in 1998, FIRST® LEGO® League is a program that provides opportunities for kids aged 9–14 to apply STEM concepts and use teamwork to solve real-world challenges.
Each year, FLL releases a challenge that kids from around the world must solve — and then present their solution to judges. Teams with the highest scores get to advance to subsequent rounds, with the ultimate objective of presenting their solutions at the World Festival in St. Louis, MO.
There are three components to each year’s challenge: the Robot Game, the Project, and the FLL Core Values.
In the Robot Game, teams of up to 10 kids must program a LEGO® MINDSTORMS® robot to complete different tasks. At tournaments, kids showcase how they got their robots to perform these functions to a group of judges.
“In the Robot Game, they lay out a mat, and the kids have tasks that they have to complete on the table. For example, this time, they had a football goal and a ball. The robot had to carry the ball to the goal post and make a goal," explained Vinaya Bondada, the team’s coach.
For the Project, kids are given a theme, such as climate control or nanotechnology. Teams must narrow the scope of this topic and come up with an innovative solution to a problem related to the theme.
This year, the topic was learning. The Dynamic Droids decided to address the problem, “How do we improve the ways middle school kids learn science?"
Prathyush Jonnalagadda, also a member of the Dynamic Droids, said, “On the first week we met together to discuss the challenge, we had no clue what to do. So we read books, watched videos, researched on the Internet, and talked to professionals." The team reached out to experts at the Discovery Museum and at Noodle to get input on their ideas.
The Droids surveyed their friends around the world and realized that using social media as a tool for kids to share their preferred learning materials would be a great way to solve this problem.
For their project last year, teams had to examine natural disasters critically. The Dynamic Droids came up with an idea to create extendable walls that would project into the sea in order to protect San Francisco from a potential tsunami.
Finally, teams are judged on their adherence to the FLL Core Values. These principles are a set of eight ideals that encourage teamwork and creativity among the group. They include learning together, valuing the experience over winning, and displaying gracious professionalism — or, as explained on the FIRST website, “Gracious professionals learn and compete like crazy, but treat one another with respect and kindness in the process."
Judges evaluate teams on the FLL Core Values throughout the competition, as well as in a specific judging session in which teams are asked to solve a problem, either hypothetically or by fulfilling a task (such as building a bridge) in front of the judges.
“Three judges will give you a task which involves your whole team working together, and it tells them about what your team is like. If you argue a lot while doing the task, it tells the judges that you fight a lot," said Ashvin Bondada, a Dynamic Droid team member and Vinay’s son.
One of the things that makes FIRST LEGO League such a special program for children is that it gives team members the space to explore and solve problems on their own. Coaches aren’t there to tell kids what to do; their role is to provide guidance. At the end of the day, it’s the kids who move the process forward. With the freedom to experiment, kids are encouraged to rely on each other’s knowledge and ideas to solve challenges.
“What I like about participating in FLL is that it’s not a one-man show, and everyone’s input matters," said Rishi Pothukuchi, one of the Dynamic Droids.
Sita, Rishi’s mom, has seen the real impact that the program has had on her son: “FLL taught him how to appreciate other people’s perspectives and opinions. He learned how to collaborate with others, and he’s become more mature and self-confident in knowing that, even if his idea isn’t used, that’s OK."
Rupini, Prathyush’s mother, saw FLL’s impact on her son in a different way: “He’s a shy kid and usually quiet. But now, after participating in the team discussions, and working with so many teams and people, I think he’s built skills when it comes to speaking up."
The parents also made clear that the program has taught the kids a lot of practical skills, such as learning how to research, presenting their findings to others, and working together.
“I think that the idea of FLL isn’t just about teaching the kids about STEM, it’s more so just like a soccer or basketball league. But this is a deeper learning experience about how to make the kids well-rounded, self-confident individuals with strong life skills," said Sita.
FLL has drawn more than 25,000 teams from 80 countries. The Dynamic Droids are moving on to their district tournament, with their eyes fixed on the World Festival. We hope they move forward, but no matter what happens, we know they’re taking home a talented centaur robot and a wealth of knowledge and experiences.
FLL teaches kids to be self-directed learners, to work as a team, and to solve problems creatively. Here are some ideas about how you can encourage these skills in your own home:
Stimulate big thinking: FLL gets kids to analyze complex, real-world themes, and encourages them to innovate within established topics. To put this skill into practice, choose a pressing issue from a newspaper or website, and ask your kids to brainstorm ideas about how to improve the situation. If you act as the note taker, it will give everyone, even younger children, an opportunity to propose solutions.
Talk to experts: A significant part of succeeding in FLL is doing the right outreach and research. If your child shows interest in a specific topic, set up a meeting with a professional in that field. For example, if your child is interested in animals, arrange a meeting with a local veterinarian; or if you child has a passion for painting, meet with an artist or curator, or take a docent-led museum tour. Have your child brainstorm questions she’d like to ask the expert ahead of time, and then pose them during the visit.
Cultivate teamwork: Examples of teamwork are all around, and pointing them out can help your child appreciate the positive effects of working with others. Sports games, dance recitals, and construction sites — to name just a few — all provide opportunities to highlight collaborative work. Get your child to think about the mechanics as well as the benefits of teamwork by posing questions like, “What is each person’s role?" or “How would things be different if the members of this team were working on their own?"