FIRST Inspires Competition, Definitely Inspired

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A team of technology teachers from ASFM recently attended the FIRST Inspires, Robotics Competition, in St. Louis, Missouri. There was so much to experience and learn during this opportunity, it was difficult to decide where to start this reflection. The event was divided into three sections- an Innovation Faire, Conference/Workshop Sessions, and the Competition. This post will provide an overview of what occurred during each section, as well as my takeaways.

Innovation Faire

The Innovation Faire combined the feel of both an Expo and Maker Faire simultaneously. Different techie exhibitors were in attendance to show off their products- encouraging students, mentors, teachers, and spectators to step up and try them out. Lines were long at the Virtual Reality station, where you could (and I did!) experience what it is like to be a Power Ranger.  A buzz was also in full force at the Monsanto booth. Here, participants were provided with a battery, small motor, toothbrush, tape, and some pipe-cleaners to create a “Brush Bot” that would race down a strip of plastic. Builders were encouraged to keep their creations and improve upon them throughout the week. The Monsanto experience definitely provided me with ideas for different team building and maker activities to pursue with both students and teachers.

It’s probably not a surprise that I spent most of my time at the LEGO Education playgrounds. Without being a competitor in the First Lego League, one could have an attempt at programing a LEGO MINDSTORM through the actual robotics course being used in the competition for the 2016-17 year. This provided me with a feel for what students would have been working toward all year- as well as a chance to ponder questioning techniques I might use to help provide guidance for students when faced with frustrations with the course. LEGO WeDo 2.0 sets were also out for exploration, they even handed out free bags of LEGO to create a Mini Milo, WeDo’s mascot. LEGO also showed off 3D printers made of the famous bricks, a functional telegraph and even a pinball machine. In my opinion, LEGO did a superb job of creating a hands on learning/maker experience.

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FIRST LEGO League 2016-17 Competition playing field

Conferences

I wasn’t sure how much attention the conference workshops were going to have with both the innovation faire and robotics competitions going on. However, it was pleasantly surprising to see students of all ages, as well as teachers, engaged in conference sessions. The stand out sessions I attended meshed between STEM, Maker Edu, LEGO Edu, and How to Create Your First Robotics team- all similar topics that ASFM is leading toward through our Strategic Innovative plan.

Throughout the sessions, students and teachers of all experiences and ages; asked questions, answered questions, and participated in valued discussion. Each voice was heard. It was incredible to see the amount of learning that shifted among generations.

After the hour long sessions, often run by teams who were also competing, session leaders were open to sharing ideas and connecting with teams (including those who were scoping things out for the first time). Multiple connections were made, as well as cards and emails shared. There was an inviting collaborative component to the overall experience.

The thing that stuck out the most to me during these sessions, was a 16 year old woman who overheard our group of teachers from Mexico contemplating the implementation of a First LEGO League team. Originally from India, she was now living in Michigan and was part of her First Robotics team’s outreach and mentoring branch. She initiated the conversation by asking if we needed any guidance or help to get started. She continued by stating that she’d love be part of a mentoring team to provide our students with support. Personally, as a junior in high school I cannot imagine approaching a group of adults, let alone offering my services to teachers and students in another country. Her confidence and willingness to help attests to the type of atmosphere found at the conference- as well as the benefits of the First Inspires programs.

Competition

At the St. Louis Championships, four levels of robotics were included:

  1. First LEGO League Jr.
  2. First LEGO League
  3. First Tech Challenge
  4. First Robotics Competition

Honesty, individual blog posts could be written about each group individually- and maybe that will happen eventually. However, this reflection will provide more of an overview between the First LEGO League Jr (FLLJR) and First LEGO League (FLL) as those are the sections I would primarily have affiliation with.

First LEGO League Jr. targets grades K-4 (6-10 years of age). Guided by an adult coach, teams look at using an innovative approach to solve a real-world problem- following an “Explore, Create, Share” structure. This year students explored an animal that lives in the same habitat as a honey bee, and were challenged to learn about the animal and its habitat. Teams then created a motorized LEGO model with WedDo to help demonstrate what they learned about this animal, along with a “Show Me” poster. Finally, teams shared their learning by participating in an Expo or hosting an event for school family and friends. Students in the FLLJR showcase in St. Louis- were highly engaged and excited to talk to spectators about their model and poster. Based on the products the teams produced, the FLLJR is a definitely a level that ASFM students could pursue. Our students currently have experience with the WeDo 2.0 LEGO set, and their research, reading and writing skills are on target for taking on the challenge.  

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FLLJR Show Me Example

First LEGO League includes students in grades 4-8 (ages 9-16). Again, guided by an adult coach, the FLL teams focus on three areas; the Robot Game, Core Values, and the Project. The Robot Game changes yearly- and has teams construct a robot with LEGO MINDSTORMS, which they program to autonomously move through a series of challenges to be completed in two and a half minutes. The Core Values is a physical representation (most often a poster) that shows analysis, research, and invention of a solution for that year’s project. And the Project is an innovative solution to a given problem. To arrive at an innovative solution, the process generally includes research, problem solving and engineering. The problem and solution are shared through a presentation to a panel of judges. This year’s challenge was to identify a problem where people and animals interact, and to design a solution that makes the interaction better for the animals, people, or both. During the Championships in St. Louis, when teams were not competing in the robotics portion of the event, they were stationed at their booth in the pit, presenting their core values poster. Students in both locations were highly engaged and able to articulate their process for programing their robot and their learning from the animal challenge. It was easy to see their commitment and belief in their team and project. Again, after witnessing both the robotics challenge and the core values components of the FLL- this is an endeavor our upper elementary students are definitely prepared for. Every student has exposure to LEGO MINDSTORMS, basic block coding in their technology class, and are continually evolving their skills of finding problems and solving them in their everyday life.

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First LEGO League Pit: A Team’s Core Values and Project from Tokyo, Japan

After reflecting on the entire experience and dissecting where our current practices are at ASFM- our next steps at the elementary campus, are to create our first, First LEGO League team and potentially a LEGO League Jr. team for the 2017-2018 school year. This will be an exciting addition to the student extracurricular experience at ASFM, and an opportunity for students to have more exposure to the STEM field. I look forward to experiencing and reflecting/blogging about our process as this initiative unfolds!

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