FIRST Lego League: 'You can build a successful team in less than 3 months'

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Automaton correspondent Marcel Bergerman, a systems scientist at Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute, sent us this nice report about his mentoring experience with the FIRST Lego League (FLL) robotics competition -- after which he became, as he puts it, "FLL-oholic."

I just came back from the FIRST Lego League (FLL) competition in Pittsburgh and I thought Iâ''d send you a note. FLL is the official FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) event for kids ages 9 to 13.

In 2006 and 2007 I was a research and software judge, and this year I was one of the mentors for a local school (Providence Heights Alpha).

I donâ''t want to exaggerate, but attending an FLL event should be in all the formal IEEE list of the â''100 things to do before you die.â''

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Itâ''s 70 teams, some 700 children, who have to build and program a Lego NXT-based robot to solve an 18-mission game. Some missions are easier than others (e.g., pushing things around) but some are really challenging (e.g., turning a wheel that opens a houseâ''s window).

Robots can use a maximum of three motors plus a combination of touch, light, and ultrasound sensors. Itâ''s amazing what some teams are capable of creating, not only in terms of locomotion but mostly manipulation. You should see some of the powered appendices in some robots â''- itâ''s like graduate school-level robotics!

The programming environment, based on National Instruments's LabView, is amazingly simple to learn -â'' kids are writing programs within minutes of being introduced to it for the first time.

All of us in the robotics field should be indebted to FIRST and the people who organize FLL events, as they are fostering the next generation of roboticists. Our local guys are the never-tiring Robin Shoop and Norman Kerman, plus an amazing team of tens of volunteers. They ran the show like a clockwork, rotating teams in and out of competition pits some 200 times over the course of 6 hours. Congratulations Robin and Norman!

Now the real reason I am writing to you is this: If you ever considered mentoring an FLL team but are afraid that itâ''s too hard or you donâ''t have the knowledge necessary or you wonâ''t have time to put on a decent performance in 10 weeks (the time between the official release of the game and competition day) -â'' then you are roundly mistaken.

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I know this sounds rude, but thatâ''s what happened to me. Ten weeks ago Robin invited us to join the competition, and I said no -â'' because I thought it was too hard and I didnâ''t have the knowledge and time to put on a decent performance. He insisted, and I am sooo glad he did.

The team (children and parents) decided to go for the challenge, met every Saturday for 3 hours, and guess what? The AlphaBots went home with two trophies in hand, second place in Software and fifth place overall.

The kids solved nine of the eighteen missions, and got a maximum score of 165 (out of some 380 possible points). At the end of their third (and last) round at the competition table the AlphaBots were screaming their lungs out, cheering for their robot and the two kids who play the game on behalf of the team. The sense of teamwork alone was worth all the effort.

And, of course, the two trophies will go nice on the shelves of a small private school in Western Pennsylvania. So pardon my redundancy, but I owe this to Robin â''- even if youâ''ve never seen or programmed an NXT, you can build a successful team in less than three months.

PS: I put a video of the AlphaBots in action at http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~mbergerm/public. Sorry that I donâ''t have videos of the other teams in action as well. The noisy adult screaming in the background is yours truly.

Photos: Carnegie Mellon University/The National Robotics Engineering Center/Robotics Academy

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