Sunday, January 11, 2009

Teamwork and Little Toy Blocks

When I was a kid, LEGO blocks were colorful and, well, blocky -- ideal for building houses or forts or vehicles that my friends and I would ram into each other to see what parts flew off in a pre-adolescent demolition derby. What I saw yesterday as I served as a judge at the Rhode Island FIRST LEGO League Robotics Tournament made my LEGO vehicles look like stone knives and bearskins (it's rule -- I can't write about geeky stuff without at least one Star Trek reference).

For those of you not familiar with the FIRST LEGO League, it's a global robotics program for kids 9-14 designed to stimulate interest in science, math, discovery, and technology (more info here).

Every year teams are given a challenge relating to real-world issues (this year's theme: Climate Connections). While adults serve as team coaches, it's up to the kids to research and propose a solution to a real-world problem facing their community related to the theme, present their research and solutions, and build an autonomous robot out of LEGOs, three motors, and a "brainbox" to carry out a challenging sequence of tasks also related to the theme. Some of the activities required of the robots this year included:
  • moving a series of blocks to one area to represent building levees in low-lying coastal areas and then triggering a "storm" by activating another LEGO construction that sent a black wheel rolling toward the levees to see if they can survive the storm
  • raising a house to lift it above flood level, opening the windows, and shutting off a light
  • move a bicycle from one area to another to illustrate the value of using a bike rather than driving
  • move an "ice core drilling machine" to the Arctic research station and then extract and deliver an ice core, and much more
All of these activities took place on a 4 ft by 6 ft table using nothing but LEGOs and in the span of just 2 and a half minutes. Watching the different approaches taken to meet these challenges, seeing these kids as they cheered on their robots and then plugged the robots into their computers so they could refine the programming so it could handle the tasks more effectively in the next round was amazing. I overheard one person remark "it's like the Geek Olympics".

While the motors and brainboxes took these constructions far beyond anything I built as a kid, at the heart of anything built with these blocks is the imagination of the kids using them and the fun they have doing it. That fun is also on display in the 5-minute presentation each team was required to give during the tournament.

The presentation, given to a panel of judges, had to address an issue in the kids' community related to climate, identify other communities that face similar issues, propose a solution, and then share their findings. That's where I came in, serving as the presentation judge initially for 11 of the 40+ teams and then, later, gathering with the other 11 judges (each of whom focused on quality of research, how innovative the solution was, or the overall presentation) to decide what teams would be called back and then how we ranked them overall.

Despite having to arrive at the campus of Roger Williams University at 7AM (and anyone who knows me knows that getting me anywhere at 7AM on a Saturday usually requires an Act of God), I enjoyed myself immensely. The day absolutely flew by with first round judging beginning at 7:45 and then additional judging continuing into the afternoon. Through the course of the day, I saw amazing examples of that creativity, not just with how kids used the LEGO blocks but how they worked together to meet a range of challenges.

As you might expect, the presentations ranged from the weak (several kids reading haltingly from an essay with a single piece of posterboard) to the great (fully realized skits with props, costumes, and detailed scripts that had been memorized by all participants). But still, these kids put themselves out there facing multiple judging panels and they all deserve a round of applause.

The research also varied from the expected (use more hybrid cars, switch to compact flourescent light bulbs, and rely on wind farms) to the innovative (cultivating a species of saltmarsh grass -- spartina alterniflora -- and then transplanting it to the marsh and coastal areas to rebuild habitats and reduce erosion). And when it came to sharing, you had to give props to the kids from here in Bristol who researched the increased threat from ticks spurred on by rising temperatures and higher humidity and then co-hosted a local radio show (sponsored by a local pest company) to answer callers questions about protecting themselves from ticks and Lyme Disease, were featured in the local paper, and lobbied the State Legislature for more funding to research and address the problem (plus one student was dressed as a giant tick so it was all good).

I was lucky enough to be one of the initial judges for the eventual winners of the Champion's Award, the team that scores the highest overall in every aspect of the competition. The "No School Foster-Glocester" team was simply outstanding, with a presentation that combined:
  • really intriguing research -- new environmentally friendly and more affordable approaches to dealing with roads in areas that are getting more snow
  • humor -- anyone from Rhode Island just had to laugh at their evocation of local radio and TV legend "Salty Brine"
  • reaching out to folks in Armenia -- same climate and weather conditions as Rhode Island learn something new every day
  • courtesy -- as the students entered the room, they went to every judge, said hello, shook hands, introduced themselves by name, and in some cases, thanked the judges for taking the time on a Saturday to participate
  • effective sharing -- they're on the docket for an upcoming town council meeting among other thing, and
  • an effective use of props and costumes -- the t-shirts with tire marks and the 1960s era kitchen aprons were a nice touch as was the giant Rubik's Cube that they assembled to create a 3-D summary of the challenge, their solution, the benefits, and the face of Salty Brine himself
"No School Foster-Glocester" is now headed to the international competition where they will be up against 80 teams from 24 countries. Congratulations, kids. You deserve it!

And even though it starts at 7AM, I expect I'll be volunteering to judge again at the Rhode Island Tournament next year.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

thanks for posting about our team! It is very exciting that we will be attending World Fest. in April, our team was so happy to read all of the awesome things you wrote about us! Hope to see you judge next year!
- The "No School Foster-Glocester" Robotics Team