FIRST LEGO League: More than just robots

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On first glance, FIRST may seem like it’s all about robotics. In reality, it’s way more than just robotics.

There are multiple leagues within FIRST, starting with First Lego League, Jr., and working all the way up to FIRST Robotics Challenge.

In north Alabama, there are multiple teams who participate in the First Lego League (FLL), which consists of fourth-eighth grade students.

In FLL, teams conduct research and design a solution to a question based on each year’s theme. In addition, they also program a LEGO Mindstorms robot to perform a series of missions on a game mat.

For 2020, the theme was Cityshaper, and the research component had several parts:

  • Identify a problem with a building or public space in the community
  • Design a solution
  • Share the solution
  • Refine the solution

In the robot game, teams identify missions to solve and design, build, and program a Lego robot to complete those missions. The teams also test and refine program and design – they only have 2.5 minutes to solve as many missions as possible.

Those missions can involve raising flags, lowering cranes, constructing buildings, and much more.

One important part of FLL is the core values, which guide the teams through the robot building and research processes:

  • Discovery: Explore new skills and ideas
  • Innovation: Use creativity and persistence to solve problems
  • Impact: Apply what you’ve learned to improve the world
  • Inclusion: Respect each other and embrace our differences
  • Teamwork: You are stronger when you work together
  • Fun: Enjoy and celebrate what you do

There are multiple teams all across north Alabama, but three teams competed and performed well at the qualifiers, advancing to state competition.

D.A.R. Technology Enhanced Kids (TEK)

D.A.R. Technology Enhanced Kids (TEK), coached by Karl Liggin with Huntsville STEAM Works, has only been around for two years, but they’re already making strides in the town of Grant.

Liggin said the team’s primary goal for 2020 was to improve on teamwork. They started from the early days of the season, developing their own practice schedule – they even met on their own without their coaches when they realized meeting once a week or every other week wasn’t enough!

Liggin was surprised when one of the students came up with the idea to survey the town and get them involved with the group’s research project.

Savannah, one of the team members, said the results of the survey showed residents wanted more places to east and more fun places. After talking to the town council, the team got to tour a rundown building and create a model of what the combined arcade/cafe would look like.

Liggin said the team’s focus on teamwork got them through the qualifiers, and at state, they won the Innovation Project Award because of the effort they undertook on their research project.

Moving forward, Liggin stated the team will work on improving their robot building, possibly working with Cool Robots and Builders (C.R.A.B), another FLL team.

Cool Robots and Builders (C.R.A.B.)

Michele Keepers coaches Cool Robots and Builders, C.R.A.B., another two-year-old team. Her son Zac helped her look into starting the team, which is heading to FLL World Championship in Houston.

Two years ago, they both attended the FIRST Robotics Competition and Zac asked if he could get involved. Through her research, Michele discovered STEAM Works and C.R.A.B. was born.

C.R.A.B. had some fun with the Star Wars sponsorship, creating CRABtroopers carrying LAMPsabers, along with their project theme “Join the Dark Sky.”

For their research project, C.R.A.B. initially looked into light pollution, narrowing their focus to the effects on bats specifically, inspired by one of the 2020 robot missions. Throughout the process, the team talked to representatives from the City of Huntsville, Huntsville Utitlies, the U.S. Forestry Service, Jeff Benton Homes, and the Von Braun Astronomical Society.

Team member Zac Keepers said Huntsville City Councilwoman Frances Akridge shared some of the city’s future streetlight plans with the team.

“Field trips” for the team also included visists to the Cave Springs Bat Cave and the Von Braun Center after the arena installed new LED lights.

But FIRST isn’t just an after school activity – some students have exposure to FIRST during the regular school day.

Robo Rangers

Walnut Grove Elementary Librarian Holly Whitt coaches the Robo Rangers.

For their research project, the team came up with a unique way to solve the issue of litter on the Flint River – a prototype scooper robot controlled by kayaks – as somebody moves a kayak, a radio signal moves the robot.

Whitt said the ultimate goal was to got the community who loves and cleans up rivers behind the project.

For the robot game, Whitt hoped the team would learn more with the robot, specifically using light sensors to follow lines on the playing field and utilizing multitasking to complete multiple parts of a mission at the same time.

Robo Rangers spoke with Madison County Commission District 1 Commissioner Roger Jones and representatives from Keep Alabama Beautiful.

Whitt said the team loves working together and the senior team members help the rookies just as much as the rookies help the senior team members.

At qualifiers, the team received the Project Award, Coach Award, and got the most points in the robot game.

While they didn’t win at state, Whitt said the team met the goals for the season.

Three of the team members said while the competition is fun, it’s definitely full of challenges, especially when working with light sensors.

Whitt noted one area of improvement for next year’s team – simplifying the programming code.

Whitt said the team is looking at using My Blocks, which will make code changes easier, with fewer opportunities for the program to fail.

Teams will begin preliminary planning for the 2021 season in March, when the theme will be released. However, full details won’t be released until August.

Despite the delay, all teams work year-round to keep improving.

To get involved with FIRST, visit the FIRST website. The website also has more information on volunteer opportunities, starting a team, and a directory of existing teams.

Due to privacy concerns, FIRST said it doesn’t match children to existing teams. If you’re interested in having your child join an existing team or starting one, you can contact your child’s school, library, or other youth organization for information on an existing team or seeing if there’s interest in starting one.

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