Guiding imagination with LEGO robotics

by Kylie Foy

As the young participants of the FIRST LEGO League (FLL) competition settled into their seats for a Monday evening practice, Lincoln Laboratory staff invited them to share ideas for the team project. Silence fell over the usually exuberant group. One girl finally raised her hand, saying, and perhaps summarizing the thoughts of each of her teammates, "I'm not sure how it will work yet," She paused, "but I have an idea." Within minutes, fresh ideas and excitement flowed throughout the classroom at Beaver Works, a project-based learning center near MIT.

FIRST LEGO League team members, guided by coaches, discover engineering possibilities.FIRST LEGO League team members, guided by coaches, discover engineering possibilities.

The FLL global robotics competition challenges teams of children to program an autonomous robot to complete missions on a playing field containing LEGO-built obstacles, and to develop an innovative solution to a unique problem. "The kids are all pretty much ready from the start to handle the LEGOs, but I love seeing how quickly they become comfortable with the programming aspect, as well," says Elisabeth Daley, a technical staff member at Lincoln Laboratory. She, along with Leslie Watkins, is coaching 10 girls, ages 9 to 14, who make up one of several Laboratory-sponsored FLL teams. "Kids as young as nine years old pick up the concepts really fast, and I hope that having this experience so early will let them do even more amazing things in high school," says Daley.

Practice sessions last three hours, running once a week until the competition in mid-December. The competition itself will allot each team two and a half minutes to complete as many robot missions as possible and five minutes to present an explanation of their solution to the year’s project to a panel of judges. The project’s theme, "Trash Trek," asks participants to envision a new way to dispose or reuse trash to benefit society. Currently, the team is brainstorming project possibilities as they learn the basics of trash-disposal practices.

Leslie Watkins explains the basics of robot assembly to her coachees. Leslie Watkins explains the basics of robot assembly to her coachees.

"It turns out that robotics is the easy part of coaching a robotics team of elementary-aged girls. The hard part is making sure the girls are having fun and learning," says Watkins. Each week, the coaches introduce an icebreaker activity to kick off practice, and help teammates build camaraderie. "We then have them evaluate a robot that another team built, so they can learn how to understand other people’s designs," explains Watkins. This process energized the young participants, who were eager to test out the robots—prodding the robot attachments, analyzing their likely speed, and even dropping them to test durability.

The team builds a newspaper tower as part of the icebreaker activity.The team builds a newspaper tower as part of the icebreaker activity.

"We are starting to get a sense of the unique strengths and interests of each girl, so we can put them in smaller teams that provide the greatest opportunity for learning from each other," says Watkins. The FLL’s core values underscore the importance of teamwork and discovery in the context of friendly competition. "The girls are starting to think a lot more strategically about the competition. There are some very exciting but tricky missions, and seeing the girls start to figure out the practicalities of what they can accomplish is a big part of the learning curve," adds Daley.

An outpouring of support from Laboratory staff was instrumental in making this year’s team possible. "Before the season started, Elisabeth sent out an email asking for volunteers to help us coach, and the response to that email was huge," says Watkins. "Not only were we able to recruit a great team of coaches, but people from across the Laboratory contacted us just to tell us that they are supportive of what we’re doing." The coaching team from across the Laboratory, including Meredith Drennan, Chelsea Curran, Tina Chen, and Allison King, is on hand each week to assist in mentoring and instruction.

A participant sets a LEGO obstacle for the robot to navigate on the playing field.A participant sets a LEGO obstacle for the robot to navigate on the playing field.

As the practice session wound down, cheers burst out as one team member released a robot that completed its mission of hooking a ring. While the team still has a long way to go in mission planning and project brainstorming, Watkins finds that lessons learned along the way will stay with team members well after the competition. "I hope that we are able to give our girls a positive, engaging experience where they can make mistakes and use them as opportunities to learn, and that they leave confident and willing to try new things."

Posted October 2015


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