kitchen table math, the sequel: First Lego League

Monday, January 15, 2007

First Lego League

Well, it was a long day at the tournament (our team had to be there at 7am and we left after 5pm), and I have very mixed feelings. This "NanoQuest" tournament was for kids not yet in high school.

I'm happy for our (4th and 5th grade) kids because they won three awards. I would also give them the most excited (surprised?) award of all 49 teams. They had a lot of fun and realized that hard work pays off. (I don't know if they would feel quite the same if they didn't win anything.) We came in 18th out of 49 teams in the robot part of the competition.

First Lego League is getting to be Big Time. They mentioned that our governor wants to provide funds for all middle schools in the state to be able to have teams. For those who don't know about it yet, they hold the tournament once a year. It consists of two parts, centered around a new theme each year. This year it was nanotechnology. (Classic top-down, hands-on learning)

One part involves programming a robot constructed out of Lego pieces. There is the main computer and a number of input and output ports to control motors and sensors. Each year the teams get a new 4 X 8 foot map with lego missions that have to be done. The team tries to do as many missions as possible in 2 1/2 minutes. One of the missions was to push a truck up onto a platform, back up, and then trigger a release mechanism to raise the truck. Another mission was to deliver a "dirt trap" across the board and then push a device that would release the dirt into the trap. The team gets points for each mission they accomplish. They get three (two and a half minute) attempts to get their robot to make the most points. Forty-nine teams with up to 10 kids per team, coaches, parents, three attempts spaced at intervals of an hour and a half. Lots of people, lots of noise, and a DJ who sounded like Sylvester Stallone. I expected to hear the theme from Rocky. For those who have seen him the Spy Kids movie, I expected to hear him yell "Game Over".

The other part of the tournament was the project on nanotechnology. The kids had to research the subject, come up with a topic, and put together a presentation. Creative is the word, even though the goal is an invention. There are no right or wrong answers. Our team put together a skit for a nanotool to reduce nanofriction. It was seriously cute. It won first prize.

The team that won the overall competition, and gets to go to Atlanta for the national tournament, was part of a year-round robotics club. They got most all of the points possible.

Why do I have mixed feelings? You can probably guess. I'll put it this way. How many of these kids go to schools where they are teaching math that will virtually guarantee they will never have the skills to get into a college of engineering? How can excitement and love of engineering, robots, and teamwork overcome bad math curricula? Our public school sent three teams of 8th graders to the tournament, but only provides CMP + algebra lite for 8th grade math. On purpose.

As a coach, it was my job to lead the kids and not tell them what to do. I got to facilitate discovery learning myself. It doesn't work. They want kids to experience the real world issues of a big project with specific deadlines. However, most projects in the real world have team members who aren't starting with absolutely no knowledge. What's a facilitator to do? Teach. It's a fine line. You have to teach them the skills they need and then prod them in the right direction. Fundamental learning and project deadlines don't mix. Top down, real world projects are not the way to teach low level skills.

Rather than taking the time to really learn what the robot can or can't do, everyone jumped right in and started doing things. It took the longest time to figure out that the robot was not a reliable piece of equipment. Even at the tournament, the common complaint was repeatability. Coaches and parents said that kids would get really excited when the robot accomplished a mission, only to be equally deflated when they ran it again and it completely failed. I was the coach for the robotics part of the competition. We couldn't get our robot to move in a straight line. We finally realized that it wasn't exactly weight symmetrical and one tire was a tiny bit flatter than the other tire. (If one tire traveled pi*d in one rotation, and the other tire rotated pi*(d-epsilon) in one rotation, then the robot won't go straight.) Then, there was the problem of turning a specific angle. It just couldn't be done reliably. Our robot sometimes decided to start spinning around in circles when told to turn 60 degrees. Although it is the job of engineers to deal with and overcome equipment issues, having the skills to discover (troubleshoot) these problems do not exist in kids.

It is EXTREMELY frustrating for kids to discover things when they do not have the knowledge and skills to do so. Trial and error discovery learning is no fun and very inefficient. That's why coaches teach. They may not tell the kids what to do, but they directly TEACH a whole lot of KNOWLWDGE and SKILLS.

Now, for next year, the kids will have less to DISCOVER, but will do a whole lot better.


Catherine Johnson said...

Do athletic coaches ever ask athletes to discover moves?

Nickd said...

I wonder how many coaches will be using books like Jim Kelly's (Mayan Adventure) to teach the teams how the robots function through a series of mini-challenges that progress in difficulty?

I bought Kelly's book for my son for Christmas. I don't see the need for him to get into a FLL team with no background knowledge. FLL is steeped with constructivist ideology - but that doesn't mean I've bought into it.

BeckyC said...

We went to state, too! Boy am I tired. Didn't win an award, but we did finish in the top half of teams.

We ran an RCX rather than an NXT.

Our big disappointment was how few teams tried to accomplish the space elevator mission. I mean, come on: you can take any robot and just run the damn thing into the elevator trigger. But most teams decided not to spend any time on it because the points were not their own to keep. We asked other coaches. A fascinating lesson for us and the kids... If the mission in the middle is competitive, everybody does it. If the mission in the middle is cooperative, nobody does it except the very top teams looking for perfect point totals. A good example of how human nature really works, despite all the happy talk about Gracious Professionalism. Yes, I’m feeling grouchy about it.

Regarding the research presentation, we made the mistake of spending precious meeting time teaching a little bit of physics from the bottom-up so our young team could understand quantum dots... when we should have been spending that precious time pounding the pavement looking for a "nanotechnologist to share our research with" to satisfy every item on the presentation judging rubric. Talking with a living, breathing scientist is optional-but-required. All in all, FLL seems to reward appearances, and who-you-know (the nanotechnologist) rather than what-you-know (quantum confinement). Another hazard of the top-down approach.

Oh, and my husband and I joke that "kids do the work (at gunpoint)". Kids really do not have any "natural" interest in dealing with equipment issues. Boy or girl. Young or old. Kids are not looking to the future. Kids know that it is the grown-up’s job to look to the future. Kids will send the robot out to do a single mission ten times in a row, and if their robot does the mission just once… the kids declare victory. It's the grown-up who asks "can your robot do that mission ten times in a row?"

Nice to stop in and visit. Keep fighting the good fight, SteveH. Keep teaching.

SteveH said...

We used the NXT, but if you had a lot of previous experience with the RCX, then it was better to stay with that. The NXT still has some serious accuracy and repeatability issues.

"I mean, come on: you can take any robot and just run the damn thing into the elevator trigger."

We did it right after delivering the smell molecules to the robot's nose. The team that eventually won the tournament (with about 300 points), came over and asked us whether we were going to do the space elevator. They wanted to know whether they needed to implement their (higher risk?) program that would come over to our side to trigger the mechanism. We said that it was in our program, but that didn't mean that it would get done.

"All in all, FLL seems to reward appearances, and who-you-know (the nanotechnologist) rather than what-you-know (quantum confinement). Another hazard of the top-down approach."

You have to watch out for those check-off rubrics. as nicksmama says:

"FLL is steeped with constructivist ideology - ..."

It's even sponsored by our local section of IEEE, of which I'm a dues paying member!

Our team got very high marks because our technical presentation was a skit! That's a lot more interesting than a dry presentation. Perhaps they took into account the fact that our kids were just 4th and 5th graders. Perhaps it also helped that our team was about half girls and they did very well in the technical interviews.

"Kids will send the robot out to do a single mission ten times in a row, and if their robot does the mission just once… the kids declare victory."

Some of our team members seemed to think that we didn't do very well at the competition compared to what we did in practice at school. Of course, they were just remembering the best combination of events.

Does FLL bring more kids into engineering? No. An absolute requirement to get into engineering is a solid background in math and there is no connection between FLL and math. I suppose that a student could just decide that engineering is what he/she wants to do and then will do anything to do well in math. How often will that happen? Most kids will think that FLL helps them get ready for engineering, but it doesn't do that. Few team members really learn anything about programming, let alone engineering, and that doesn't prepare them for engineering if they can't make the grade in math. Programming is not engineering. One of my masters degrees is in Computer Engineering. This is not a degree in Computer Science, which is not in the school of engineering. Being a techno-geek doesn't make you an engineer. FLL participation is not an indicator of success in engineering school. Good math courses and grades are.

Don't get me wrong. FLL can be great fun. Robots are great fun. It's far better than Game Cube. Just don't do it thinking that it's some sort of magic learning technique. Do it because it's fun. Now that I've been through my first learning year, maybe I think it's fun. Maybe.

BeckyC said...

FLL is great fun. We'll definitely be back next year for more punishment.

We did try to get our team in to see a couple of different scientists -- a lady at the local graduate institute and a gentleman at the city university -- but neither one had time in their busy schedules to talk with a group of unwashed boys. I fear that if I had been making the request on behalf of a team of girl scouts... that we might have gotten in to see someone somewhere.

All of these boys on our team learned programming AND building AND science, but my husband noted that in the technical interview, one judge seemed disappointed when the boys could not immediately respond to a question about how different team members had "specialized, you know, who were your builders and who were your programmers?". The short answer is that we didn't let them specialize because we felt responsible for Leaving No Child Behind. Our team split the effort mission by mission -- each boy got ownership of one or two missions -- and that worked very well to keep it all real for every boy. I hope we would have done the same if we had had a team of girls.

Oops, is my slip showing here? We didn't make decision for the kids, we only "guided the process."

The boys were even able to set aside their egos to combine missions when necessary, and with little prompting from us. But we got bit by that effort anyway, compared with teams who split into research + skit + cheer + costumes, versus programming, versus building.

Very very very few children want to learn how to build a robot that doesn't fall apart.

Like in the real world: marketing + human resources + facilities + finance, versus software, versus manufacturing.

You know, when we first rounded up kids from school for this team, I made a list of likely boys because I didn't know any girls or parents of girls to ask. I only have boys of my own. It's like starting up a small business -- you don't want to set yourself up to have too many doors slammed in your face.

But anyhow, one of the mothers asked us at the first meeting, "why aren't there any girls?"

I thought that was a strange question, and I thought, "well, how am I supposed to find them?" and "You can start your own team if you think I am being unfair to girls" but the moment passed. Looking back on it, perhaps she was simply more aware of the advantage of being seen to promote girls in FLL competition.

Our team was, however, very diverse by ethnicity.

Other parents have no idea of the effort involved.

Oh, and about the space elevator: five trips to the tournament table between local and state; three of our table pairs did not even attempt the elevator, and two of our table pairs attempted but failed. Obviously, we were very grateful for those two teams that attempted it. We had been asking all of the teams ahead of time to try it if they had the mission ready.