My youngest son, Nick, is a bit of an over-achiever. With the school system's help, we've worked hard to keep him challenged. He's a voracious reader, loves to write, and excells at math, too. If we moved him ahead one grade, he'd probably be right on course. That would be silly, though. Anyway, one of the coolest programs the school offered to keep kids like Nicky motivated is sponsored by the Lego Corporation. It's a competition similar to the Robotics tournaments held at the high school level. Nick's group worked with Lego® pieces, including a small programmable robot module, in a mission called Ocean Odyssey. The project design is very specific, but the participants had lots of flexibility in how they chose to approach and solve the problems presented. Months of extra-curricular work led to today's First Lego League tournament, an all-day event involving more than twenty teams from around the state.
We spent the day on the beautiful, snow-swept University of Rochester campus. The tournament played out in the U of R's rambling brick and steel Goergen Athletic Center, in the basketball arena. The kids had to check in by eight this morning, with closing ceremonies scheduled for late afternoon. The hard court surface, concrete bleachers, and soaring steel-truss ceiling all served as amplifiers for the more than two hundred competitors and their parents, coaches, judges and volunteers. I think the right word is cacaphony. The competition is very carefully scripted but filled with plenty of time for the players to blow off some Saturday steam. Eight hours watching an engineering-oriented tournament sounded tedious in advance. It was a blast!
The meat of the meet focused on motorized Lego® robots, designed by the kids. There was more to this eight-week program, though. Students learned about environmental issues and devised problem-solving approaches that were presented by the teams to event judges during the morning. Later, when the trophies were presented, we all found out just how important those presentations were. Teams also scored big points for great teamwork, enthusiasm, and sportsmanship. Judges observed the way the young scientists/engineers interacted with each other and with their competitors all day, including during practice sessions and between-times. The rest of us watched from the rock-hard bleachers, sought out the concession stands, and braved the bitter cold for brief forays onto the campus.
Nick's team was a rookie entrant, while some other teams had two or three years behind them. Several groups were composed of students a couple years older than Nick. Some teams were sponsored by the big names involved in the tournament, like Xerox and Bausch & Loam. One of the competitors was made up entirely of home-schooled kids! A couple others featured students from schools specifically focussed on a math/science curriculum. Our group, lacking experience and without corporate sponsorship, simply hoped to join the competition and place somewhere in the middle. The "let's all have fun out there" goal was easily met, right from the start.
The actual robotic competition consumed most of the afternoon with three rounds tightly controlled by the clock and by the zebra-striped referees. We all had many opportunities for screaming and cheering our encouragement. Who knew math and science could be loud and fun? The kids had a ball.
It's hours later now, and I'm sure every one of those young engineers is sound asleep, with strains of Queen's We Are the Champions running through their dreams. Our local eleven-o'clock news just ran their thirty-second feature on this Finger Lakes First Lego League tournament. They captured only a small part of the intensity and the carnival atmoshpere. The scoring and categories of trophies awarded were both a bit complicated, so the TV coverage didn't go into that end of it. It's not really about winning, after all, so much as it is about joining and competing, and about thinking "outside the box." Although the students had loads of fun, they also learned a lot in the process. Maybe they even made some new friends and came away with fresh ideas for how they might approach the competition next year.
Oh, yeah, I almost forgot to mention: WE WON!! Our seven, un-sponsored, public-schooled fifth-graders--who came in early and stayed late and gave up vacation time to practice--took the highest award: the Directors' Trophy. We were all surprised, stunned, and elated. And so, so proud.
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