STEM Education through Lego

The Cedar Falls FLL Regional
FIRST LEGO League in action.

The Cedar Falls Regional Qualifier for FIRST LEGO League (FLL) and the Cedar Falls Regional Expo for Junior FIRST LEGO League (Jr. FLL) took place recently at Peet Junior High.  DISTek and its people are very active in supporting FIRST related teams.  There were at least three DISTekians who served as coaches or mentors for FLL teams and one DISTekian who was the coach for a Jr. FLL team.  DISTek was also a sponsor of multiple teams.

If you are not familiar with FIRST, it is an acronym that stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology”.  This organization and the people associated want to get youth interested in science and technology.  For additional information on FIRST and DISTek’s involvement with FIRST related teams, let me reference you to another blog on the DISTek site or the FIRST website itself.

The rest of this blog will focus on FIRST LEGO League given I am a coach.  FLL challenges youth in grades 4-8 to build and program an autonomous LEGO robot that accomplishes missions related to a theme, to create a real world solution related to the theme, and to exhibit the core values of FLL.  This year the FLL theme is World Class Learning Unleashed.

The robot is built using any LEGO piece that is available.  Youth program the LEGO Mindstorm bricks using a graphical programming language based upon National Instruments LabVIEW.  Attachments that can be connected to the Mindstorm bricks include motors, ultrasonic sensors, touch sensors, color/light sensors, infrared sensors, gyro sensors, and a few others.  This allows youth to move their LEGO robot around the competition field, but also intelligently use landmarks in the mat or the border of the table to get the robot in position to accomplish tasks/missions.

Besides the creation and programming of a LEGO robot, the youth also create a real world solution related to the theme and present it to a set of judges.  This year with World Class Learning Unleashed theme, the teams were to improve the way that learning will occur in the future.

The third part of FLL that a team must exhibit is the FLL Core Values.  Values such as Gracious Professionalism® and Coopertition® are common terms in FLL.  I summarize these terms as compete like crazy, but show respect and help others (even your competitors).  Other values include being a team, the youth doing the work, learning is more important than what you win, and sharing experiences with others.  The last core value that is easily seen at FLL competitions is “We have FUN!”  This value is taken to heart by the youth and the adults (judges, coaches, mentors, …).

One of the rewards working with students in FLL is how they connect what they are doing with the building and programming of the LEGO robots with real world engineering.  During this FLL season, my team has learned how to use the ultrasonic sensor by running the robot in parallel to the wall of the mission field, but keeping the robot a consistent distance from the wall.  In parallel, I had a co-worker discuss his work project where ultrasonic sensors were being discussed to monitor the distance between two mechanical parts.  Explaining to the team how adults are using similar sensors and using similar problem solving processes really connected with the youth.  These youth are learning real life problem solving skills at a young age, which I hope will make them great problem solvers in their careers and solve the challenges facing the world.

As for the FLL competition, my expectations were exceeded.  Working with youth of elementary and junior high age, unexpected is the expected at times.  The human portion of the competition went almost flawlessly for my team.  The youth did their best, which is all I could ask.  Our robot did not perform to our desired expectations but didn’t perform badly.  We have the privilege of competing at the Iowa State FLL competition in January.  It was a great day!