“Three! Two! One! LEGOS!” was the battle cry of elementary school students heard Saturday afternoon at FIRST LEGO League competitions around the Salt Lake Valley.
The FIRST LEGO League is an international organization that includes teams from over 70 different countries around the world. Although FLL has been around since 1999, the competition has only been in Utah for the last seven years. The competition involves building and programming a robot out of LEGOs to perform specific tasks in a small course about the size of a dining room table.
The tasks and construction of the contest center around a specific theme. This year’s is “Nature’s Fury” and focuses on helping a town respond safely to a natural disaster.
The teams are composed of three to 10 elementary school students between the ages of nine and 14. Each team begins with the same materials kit, including a practice course with a “programmable brick,” or small computer that controls the robot’s movements and the software to write the program. The young engineers have been working hard — most since August — to build and program their robots.
“It’s a big time commitment,” said Marcie Conner, who coaches her 12-year-old son Noah’s team, “Happy Accidentz”, with her husband Tom. “We started meeting in August and we’ve been meeting twice a week for an hour and a half to two hours.”
As the competition drew closer, the Happy Accidentz met almost every day.
“The programming kids have been working nine or 10 hours a day over their Christmas break,” Conner said.
The Conners first heard about FLL through U student Jen Hillam, when Noah attended a summer LEGO robotics camp at the University of Utah. Hillam now serves as one of the team mentors for Happy Accidentz.
The FLL competition is multi-layered. Team members work together programming and designing the robot to perform different tasks like lifting broken tree branches off of power lines to carrying water and fuel resources to a safe zone — all on a LEGO scale, of course. The team receives points of each task performed by the robot within the two-minute time limit.
Since this year’s theme was natural disasters, Happy Accidentz planned a three-day survival pack to prepare people in case of an emergency. FLL participants are expected to build well and they are encouraged to integrate their ideas into real life.
FLL competition stresses the core values of discovery, integration, inclusion, and “cooperation.”
“They call it ‘gracious professionalism,’ ” explains Conner. “It’s learning how to be a good team player.”
Scott Ho, a graduate student studying mechanical engineering, has mentored the team for the last two years.
“Last year I actually knew one of the families of the kids,” Ho said. “Then about a week later, I got an email through the university department about the program, so I just decided, ‘Do it!’ ”
The competition also gives children the chance to work with college students.
“It’s really neat [for the kids] to work with college students,” Conners said. “I think it’s been really inspirational for them.”
The younger students get a thrill from seeing their work in action.
“My favorite thing is seeing the robot work,” said Noah, one of the Happy Accidentz programmers and builders. He enjoys programming the robot, but admitted that it can be frustrating at times. In their last competition, the robot left the course scoring no points simply because they had forgotten to plug in its sensor. That was an easy fix and after few more adjustments the team hoped to score in the 200 to 300 point range.
“It’s amazing to see what the kids do,” Ho said. He was quick to point out that apart from the difference in materials, the young teams’ work is very similar to what he does as a mechanical engineering student.
“They are going to have a huge advantage to us,” he said. “I didn’t know what programming was at their age.”