Sixteen years ago, Segway inventor and engineer extraordinaire Dean Kamen co-founded the FIRST® LEGO® League (FLL®), a robotics tournament designed to engage teams of middle school students in solving real world problems using science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills.
Today, the international program is wildly successful. While first-time spectators often gravitate to the innovative robots students design, the real power of the program lies in its core values, which emphasize teamwork, gracious professionalism, community interaction, public speaking and creative thinking.
So it was that on a chilly Sunday in mid-November, over 300 students and visitors from across Vermont overran snow-draped Plumley Armory in a noisy, energetic scrum of spectators and teams competing in “sports for the mind.”
Facing the 2014 FIRST LEGO League World ClassSM challenge, groups of 9-14 year olds were tasked to “redesign how we gather knowledge and skills in the 21st century. Teams will teach adults about the ways that kids need and want to learn.”
Throughout the daylong event, student teams unleashed their robots to execute pre-defined tasks on table tennis-sized tournament courses. Judges awarded points based on the number of missions completed and their complexity.
In a second phase of the competition, students met with judges to answer questions about their robot’s design and the thinking behind it.
Finally, student teams met alone with judges, who presented them with a problem to solve to see how the team worked together.
The Green Mountain Gears of South Burlington had a well-rounded showing, performing strong in all of the competition areas and garnered the competition’s top prize-The Champion’s Award. They were one of eight teams that advanced to compete in the New Hampshire FLL State Tournament in Nashua.
During program breaks, hundreds of students and visitors took the opportunity to visit other sites on the Norwich campus. These included the NU Robotics Club, the Civil Engineering Structures Lab, the Advanced Manufacturing/Rapid Prototyping facility and the Sullivan Museum and History Center, the state’s only Smithsonian Affiliate.
Over 80 volunteer students, faculty and staff led by Electrical and Computer Engineering Lecturer David Feinauer helped organize the event.
Thanks to a partnership with a long-standing FLL tournament system in New Hampshire, Norwich University provided 200 students in Vermont a high-quality, inspiring learning experience.
The tournament marked the second time in as many years that the university has hosted the event and only the second time such an event has been held in the state.
Vermont is the only state in the country that does not have its own stand-alone FLL system, something tournament coordinator Feinauer aims to change.
The FLL program is vital to STEM education, he says, because it targets middle-school students, an age group bypassed by many STEM programs, which typically target elementary or high school age students.
It is the aim of this program and other FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) events to use robotics as a hook to engage and inspire kids in the areas of education, engineering, science, and technology. Through FLL, teams:
- engage in problem solving for real-world engineering challenges by honing their engineering design skills and developing autonomous LEGO robots that complete thematic tasks in the Robot Game;
- apply research, critical thinking, and creativity skills to learn the science, discover career possibilities, and learn to make positive contributions to society through the real-world themed Project;
- and in the Core Values component, demonstrate their understanding of the program’s values including friendly competition, and that graciously helping one another is the foundation of teamwork.