In the past six months, I have been coaching a group of five elementary children to compete in First Lego League (FLL) tournament. Yesterday was the tournament day and the team did a great job to achieve better than expected results. As the team coach, I have learned a lot from each one of five kids and am very proud of what they have achieved.
The FIRST LEGO League is an international competition organized by FIRST for elementary and middle school students (ages 9–14 in the USA and Canada, 9–16 elsewhere). In September each year, a new challenge is announced that focuses on a different real-world topic related to the sciences. This year the challenge is called “The Trash Trek” which asks teams to explore the hidden but fascinating world of trash, from collection, to sorting, to smart production, and reuse. The team must also invent a solution to help our trash problem and create their own LEGO MINDSTORMS® robot to accomplish trash-themed “missions” on a playing field, and show how well they practice FIRST LEGO League Core Values.
Dreaming to be an engineer when growing up, my son and four other kids formed a team in August 2015. They named their team “The Amazing Rock Stars” by using each of team members’ initials. They are all American-born Chinese and live in close neighborhood. Parents know each other very well too. In September, we officially registered our team on FIRST website after FLL announced “The Trash Trek” challenge. With the help of local FLL organizer, we were able to borrow two LEGO MINDSTORMS® robots instead of purchasing (very expensive robots). We ordered the “The Trash Trek” game package and both coaches did one full day training on how to program with LEGO MINDSTORMS® robot. With everything set, our team was ready to roll.
When I look back, I would like to call our team practices into three phases. The first phase was from middle September to end of October. Most of the practices at this phase were at assistant coach’s house, with exception of two meetings at community center. Since everybody was new to the FLL and LEGO MINDSTORMS® robot, we spent quite a lot of time in familiar with the operation of LEGO MINDSTORMS® robot. We talked about the core value, pseudo code, flow chart and some planning work and spent some time to setup the game table with ten missions. The first mission we tried to tackle was mission 10 demolishing which was the closest one to the base. The job turned out not as easy as it first seemed. The red handle to pull all building materials down was very hard to move. The team used a stick to try to knock down the red handle but failed multiple times due to the shape and sturdiness of the red handle. As the rookie to the league, we have been told that finishing one task would be a great achievement to first comer. After assistant coach’s visit to a FLL event in DC in middle October, we decided to be more practical, making 6 composting as our mission, instead of 10. The mission 6 is indeed easier than mission 10. The robot only needed to hit the yellow button to score. We had this task easily done.
In the second phase of our practice, we moved our practice site to our treasurer’s house. With one mission done, we were confident in pursuing more missions. The next mission was to retrieve valuable (mission 9). With the arrival of second robot, we divided the team into two sub-teams. Two coaches each helped one sub-team to tackle the same mission to see which team would finish first. The mission 9 required the use of a big motor to pick up the ring from the demolished building. My original plan was to give teams freedom to explore on their own to see what they can achieve. Apparently both kids and parents were not ready to take this independent challenge so coaches had to provide hands-on instruction to help teams work on this mission. The team I helped was able to get this job done first even though the second team had a nice robot design. We learned the good robot design is a nice plus, but not necessary–as long as it works, it is good enough. We also learned it is more efficient to assign a role to each team member, such as programmer, builder, and planner. Time was running fast and before we were totally ready, it was time for the Scrimmage Dry Run on Dec. 19 organized by local FLL committee.
Our robot did poorly in the Scrimmage Dry Run. One of our team members accidently took the arm down from the first robot which finished the mission 9 successfully. We had to switch to the second robot. However, the second robot was not able to retrieve valuable in mission 9. The first round was a total failure. The kids were frustrated and mad at the one who took the arm down. Anyway, one kid managed to assemble a new arm for the robot before the second round started. The team did much better in the round 2 with three missions completed. The judge asked us whether we wanted to show her the project we were planning to do. Without much preparation, unsurprisingly, we totally screwed up the presentation. The judge was really disappointed and used a very stern language on those kids. I felt bad too since I was the coach. The Scrimmage Dry Run was a big wake-up call to everyone on the team. We had to devote more, otherwise we will end up at the bottom.
Then came the third phase of our team practice. As the school closed for the winter break, we decided to intensify our team practice. For last two weeks in December 2015, team met as many as five times each week with a total of 20 hours. Realizing we only practiced the project once, we spent many hours to develop the script, rehearsal the skit, and revise and rehearsal again. As the time is limited for poster making, my wife decided to help and she taught my son to develop a very nice infographic to visualize our project. We also realized we need to boost our robot performance by adding more missions. After watching other teams on the Scrimmage day, we decided to add mission 2 and 7. Luckily, with everybody’s devotion, the team was able to pull them off and by the time to the tournament, the kids could successfully complete six missions. The Amazing Rock Stars were ready to rock and roll.