Thursday, January 29, 2009

FIRST LEGO League makes an impression on middle schoolers

"Do I really have to be here this early?"

"What are we going to do until the competition starts?"

"I could be hanging out downtown with my friends right now."

Yes, I was met with many complaints that morning. After a 2.5-hour drive to Aiken, SC, from Greenville, SC, six middle-school boys were really tired and cranky. At 8 a.m. And it was all a bunch of hurryupandwait for them.

And, with none of us knowing fully what to expect, we found ourselves saying things like, "What do you mean we need a team representative for the parade? Parade? What parade?" and "Coach meeting? What? Where? When?"

But, once we figured out that we needed a team sign and my ever-helpful husband found the nearest store to buy poster board and markers, the lights in the gym went down and the tournament lights came up. The music started. (After we asked them to move the speaker from the side of our team table!)

They ran their first practice round under the lights. The entire team was allowed at the table. At least they all had the experience of being at the table. The programs failed miserably.

I never heard a complaint after that. They all figured out what to do in an instant. Everyone was at least attentive to what was happening to both the program and the robot, even if they didn't have ideas on how to fix the problem. Miraculously, they all started following the rules I set out for them at the beginning of the season:

Change one thing at a time and test.
Tell everyone what you're changing and why.
Pay attention when someone asks why you're doing something.
Don't make a move until you've told at least two people what you're doing.
Save early, save often.
Double-check your work.

While we knew we weren't going to make it to the state competition our first year, they sure did try to get the best score they could. We had three competition rounds. Our goal was to score 45 points, regardless of where that put us in the standings. After the first round, with a score of 40, we were solidly in the middle of the pack. Since 10 teams could move on, this sparked the hope that maybe, just maybe...

And so they kept improving their strategy, programs, and robot design. The creative presentation was what it was. Last-minute advice? Just make the judges laugh. The idea was solid, but it was so complex that it wasn't realistic to present the whole thing in two minutes. Let it go. Robot design presentation? What? Yup, another surprise. They handled it well.

Two more competition rounds. Talking with the judges helped clarify how the score is calculated, and they figured out that they could get more points by taking the penalty for touching the robot instead of the whole mission failing.

Final score: 57 points.

No trip to state competition, but a fun victory dance for the robot. And for us. Yes, all but Riley danced. Including me.