The tension in the room was high as a team attempted to get an emergency vehicle into a disaster area to tend to survivors. With the clock ticking, the team’s first three attempts ended in failure — twice the vehicle was left on its side. Finally, the team got the vehicle to the designated area safely, and the room erupted in applause.
So it went last weekend during the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) LEGO League, or FLL, qualifying competitions.
For decades, parents have bought the building toy LEGOs in the hopes that their children will learn and create while having fun. The FLL validates that belief, offering serious competition in an environment that encourages fun.
That’s the whole idea, says Chuck Melton, a computer scientist and longtime FLL volunteer.
“We want to take equations off the chalkboard and show these children real-world applications,” he says. “And, we want them to have fun doing it.”
While Mississippi children have been competing in FLL for years, this past weekend marked the first time that regional qualifiers were held here in the Magnolia State. The north regional was held in Starkville, the central regional in Vicksburg and the south regional on the Coast.
FIRST LEGO League is a robotics program for children in grades 4-8. Each competition has three parts: the Robot Game, the Project and the FLL Core Values. Teams of up to 10 children, with one adult coach, participate in the Challenge by programming an autonomous robot to score points on a themed playing field (Robot Game), developing a solution to a problem they have identified (Project), all guided by the FLL Core Values, which include teamwork, finding solutions and having fun.
This year, children competed in the NATURE’s FURY Challenge. Students explored the storms, earthquakes, waves and discovered what can be done when intense natural events meet the places people live, work, and play.
In the Project segment, teams were charged with presenting their project to judges, encouraging both technical as well as communications skills.
In the FLL Core Values segment, teams were divided equally and separated by a curtain. Half the team was handed a prefabricated item while the other half received disassembled parts of the same item. The team with the prefabricated item was charged with describing the item to the other half, who had the challenge of fabricating the item simply from verbal prompts.
The Robot Game is when the project was shown in its working order. Some of the challenges included getting an aircraft to drop supplies to a designated area on the playing field, a barrier sufficient to withstand a tsunami and lifting trees off of power lines.
Winning teams will go on to compete in the Mississippi championships, which are to be held in Hattiesburg next March.
The wins were not easy ones. FLL purposely gives its participants seemingly insurmountable problems with limited time and resources to accomplish their goals.
Mannie Lowe, program manager of the Center for Math and Science Education at the University of Mississippi and FLL volunteer, says the competition is meant to mirror the real world.
“The task seems impossible — no time, no funding,” Lowe says. “What these kids come up with is truly amazing.”
In addition to FLLers, the Junior FIRST LEGO League also was on hand. For K-3 children, participants designed and built a model using LEGO bricks and motorized moving parts. These students “graduate” to FLL.
Above FLL is FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) for children grades 7-12 who had to develop strategies and build robots based on sound engineering principles.
The FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) is for high-school aged children and combines the excitement of sport with science and technology to create a unique varsity “Sport for the Mind.”
The competition is open to home-schooled children, too.
“We’re looking for the next-generation scientists and engineers,” says Melton. It is fun, but it’s also serious business.”