Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Kids + Robots = FUN!

Every year from August to December, somewhere between 90 and 99.9 percent of my free time is taken up as a volunteer helping to organize the Poudre Qualifier, a regional FIRST LEGO League robotics tournament. FIRST LEGO League (or FLL) is a robotics competition for teams of kids from 9 to 15 years old. At the Poudre Qualifier, we host over 300 kids on 48 teams. These kids have spent the last 2 months (or more) building a robot using a LEGO MindStorms robotics kit and creating a research project. Their robot will try to do as many missions as possible on a 8-foot by 4-foot playing field in two and a half minutes.
Of all of the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotics competitions, FLL is unique in that the robot is completely autonomous. It must be smart enough to go out and accomplish its missions and return to base all on its own. If the kids have to rescue the robot out on the table they incur a penalty. Here is a video of a robot doing its thing during a past competition. The kids also do a research project based on the theme of that year's competition. Recent themes have included nanotechnology, energy, and transportation. At the tournaments, a team presents their research project to a panel of experts. Teams are also judged on a technical interview, where they answer questions about their robot's design, construction, and programming; as well as a teamwork exercise to test their ability to solve problems as a team.
With well over 100,000 kids on over 15,000 teams all over the world, FLL is a terrific program for getting young people interested in science and technology in an exciting and fun way. By talking to and learning from experts, kids find out that they can use science and technology to make a positive difference in their world. They also learn many valuable life skills for a future engineer or scientist: teamwork, public speaking, being interviewed, working and performing under the pressure of deadlines, and most of all, how to compete while treating teammates and opponents with respect and courtesy. That is a concept called Gracious Professionalism and it is the core value of FIRST.
What FIRST really needs is volunteers who want to share their passion for science and technology with a new generation of enthusiasts. So my request to you, dear reader, is to find a FIRST event near you and volunteer! Be a referee, a judge, a coach... whatever you want. Just get involved! It will only cost you a few hours or a day, and I guarantee that you will have an amazing time. All of the FIRST events are free and open to the public, so you can also come out and watch these kids having a great time solving difficult problems. If you live here in Colorado, we have the state championship tournament coming up. Information can be found here. And by the way, more photos from our tournament can be found here.

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