Kids wrestled Lego bricks from their teammates, argued, sighed, rolled their eyes, and shouted down each other’s ideas. Our team-building session was off to a disastrous start. As I let the dust settle from the kids’ first attempt to solve a simple problem with a timer running, the most cheerful comment I could make was a perky, “Well, we’ve got a lot of work to do!”
My son’s team will be joining other kids around the country this coming weekend for the FIRST Lego League competition. Teams build NXT robots designed to run missions on a playboard with obstacles and tasks built from Lego bricks. This year’s theme is the human body. The missions involve tasks of varied complexity and point value in which their robot must solve medical themed problems.
Right now my son is planning the heart mission. The heart on the playboard is shaped like a valentine heart, and he needs the robot to transport a cardiac patch and a pacemaker. The patch has to be placed entirely within the heart. As for the pacemaker, it has a black tube piece protruding from a larger grey piece. Only the black tube can be inside the heart. If any portion of the grey part of the pacemaker enters the heart he’ll lose points.
This is all in the context of a two and a half minute timed competition in which the robot will also manipulate Lego pieces to release a syringe, put a cast on a bone, put a marrow transplant inside a bone, make the leg kick a ball, get a medicine dispenser to collect only blue and white pieces, grab a patent, and more. The robots have to be fast and accurate. Kids have to make quick switches and modifications while the timer races, taking penalty points for touching the robot in the hopes that it’s worth it to score a big mission run.
But what I like the best about the FIRST competition is that it’s about a lot more than the robot. The scoring includes teamwork, an emphasis on kids doing the work, the ability to take on different roles and contribute to the process, and a research project. The project requires the team to identify a problem specific to the year’s theme, suggest an innovative solution, share their work with the world, and make a tightly timed presentation to the judges.
I asked my son to describe his team’s project. “The problem is when diabetics enter dangerously low blood sugars, um, and our solution is through nanotechnology a phone application could monitor your blood sugar levels and when you are entering too low would call loved ones and alert paramedics. We designed a website.”
The nanotechnology aspect is far-fetched and their supporting research is shaky in places. But wow, what an idea! The team was inspired by one of their coaches who has Type I diabetes and agrees that their idea could be a serious contribution if it could be developed into a working application.
So what have they learned, leading up to next weekend’s regional competition? Engineering, programming, robotics, research skills, website building, problem-solving, and teamwork.
Okay, teambuilding is a work in progress. It’s all a work in progress. The robot routinely misses the placement of the marrow transplant, the animation of the nanotechnology solution won’t embed in the website, and the presentation for the judges is only barely sketched out. But it really is all about the process. The product is just a nifty bonus.