First Lego League?!?
September 7, 2012 3:02 PM   Subscribe

Could someone please help me understand the First Lego League?!?

My 12 year old son is interested in joining a First Lego League team. Like a good father I'm trying to educate myself on it but the FLL website is just as confusing to me as the FLL itself. Please help me understand the following:

1. How can my son locate teams in our area? The info I downloaded from the FLL website doesn't list a team within 20 miles of us yet I know of at least one. Is there a better way?

2. Who pays for the rather expensive Lego® set needed to compete?

3. Are all teams limited to the same number and type of materials or is this a competition that can be bought, i.e. more money = more Legos= more success?

4. Do all teams have an adult as "coach" or can teams be self-run by the kids?

5. Does experience in the FLL translate into anything tangible for its participants or is it just a fun club?

And, finally...

6. What separates good teams from bad teams?

You have the grateful thanks of a bewildered dad.
posted by Jamesonian to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (7 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Locally, our middle school has a team, and it's run by one of the science teachers.

The kits were purchased by the team as a whole, so the costs were split among the members.

The kits are specifically exactly the same for each team in the yearly competition, so that everyone has the same footing.

Yes, the team typically has an adult, or teacher sponsor, and parental involvement is encouraged.

Yes, the experiences are translated to some more ephemeral stuff (teamwork, socializing, etc) as well as some concrete benefits for contest winners (typically, the same recruiters/schools that attend robotics competitions attend regional and state championships).

Good teams are teams that work together. When we attended the tournaments, it was the disorganized teams that had a few devoted members that tended to fail. When all of the team members were there with their own little cheers, their own little outfits, and everyone contributed to the robots' goals, they inevitably scored very well.
posted by thanotopsis at 3:08 PM on September 7, 2012

'Round here (Phoenix area), all of the teams are associated with schools and FLL is treated like an extracurricular sport. The sets are provided by the school or by donors. Teams are coached by teachers / parents / college students from nearby university.

It seems to be less of a club that builds lego stuff and more of an integrated curriculum revolving around a particular subject matter which uses lego as a focus for several related disciplines. Last year the subject was food safety (I think) and the kids did research projects, gave speeches, skits, presentations etc. along with the actual lego obstacle course.
posted by Barry B. Palindromer at 3:08 PM on September 7, 2012

The robot sets are based around the $300 Lego robotics kits. You can add your own Legos, but are limited to one controller block and three motors, so there's not a huge advantage in having a lot of Lego.

One nice thing about FLL is that it's not all about the robots. There's also a research project and presentation required. It's designed to be a very well-rounded program.

I think it works best with adults truly coaching: presenting the issues, facilitating large and small groups, suggesting possible strategies (general not specific) and letting the kids do the work. This requires considerable time. I helped a group that met twice a week, 1.5 hours per session, and I think that was about as minimum as we could have done and felt like we accomplished our goals. The teams that win probably meet 4 or 5 days a week, or do it in class. Or draw from students who've done it year after year. But you don't have to win to have fun, and the challenges are well-designed so that even a rudimentary team will score enough points to not be humiliated.
posted by rikschell at 7:23 PM on September 7, 2012

Best answer: For what it's worth, I was part of a FLL/Botball team for a few years (until the team and I both discovered that robotics is not my thing - I was always the team member in charge of the presentation/research, which seems to be more involved now), and we took first in our regional tournament both years we did FLL. Here's my totally subjective opinion as to what made the experience good for me.

For the first year, our team was just the project of a bored dad whose son loved playing with Legos, and put out flyers for other interested kids. We met for full-afternoon-into-evening sessions once a week, with supplementary sessions on weeknights as we could make it fit. The parents didn't have any experience with the kind of problems we were working on, and mostly just existed to keep us focused (we were 12-13 at the time).

It was an absolute blast. Our team self-selected into groups - these kids worked on engineering, these kids worked on programming, bounce ideas off Kortney and just make sure she can explain what you're doing to the judges - and we had some real talents emerge.

The next year, some of the parents pulled some strings and brought on a grad student from the local university's robotics program as an advisor. I'm sure some teams have made that work well, but it was absolutely no fun to have an "expert" tell us exactly what he would do in any given situation. It seemed like quite a few of the teams that we met at the tournament had adults with engineering or programming expertise involved fairly deeply in the creation of their robots, which seemed to sort of defeat the purpose for me.

We also found that quite a few of the teams we met were very strongly invested in winning, instead of learning or having fun. Maybe some kids respond better to that competitive spirit, but I'd think a good team would keep it light, and focused more on the experience than on "first place at any cost". (If you're considering sabotage, you've probably gone too far.)

As far as tangible benefits, aside from the "Best Presentation" trophy I got to keep, it made for something nice to list on a resume to prove that I knew how to play nicely with others. I also learned a lot about engineering and programming, and my dislike of same. And I learned how to make a robot (possibly for Botball, fancier equipment than FLL) beep the melody for "Carol of the Bells" while it worked, which I wasn't allowed to leave in for the final competition, darn it all.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to find my trophy. It's made of Legos and has gears that spin. I'm absurdly proud of it.
posted by Kortney at 8:36 PM on September 7, 2012

I'm a volunteer with the FIRST robotics program and I've been involved for the last 12 years. (I currently run the Boston FRC competition.) If you've got more questions, please feel free to MeMail me.

Are you using this tool to look for teams in your area? If you still can't find any (but you know they're out there), then let me know, and I can try to get in touch with your Regional Director.

You might also benefit from chatting with the Non-Engineering Mentors Organization (NEMO). It's set up just for parents like you who want to help but aren't quite sure what it is they're getting into.

FLL is an awesome program. Yes, there can be trophies from the competitions, but what you're really doing is setting the kids up for an excellent understanding of math, science, and engineering, and of project management and design. They learn public speaking, teamwork, and cooperation. The high school programs in particular - FTC and FRC - can genuinely be life-changing for a kid interested in pursuing a STEM major and career, because they teach some critical skills that will be important to an increasingly experience-based field, whether it's soldering or programming or machining or computer animation. It definitely changed a lot for me when I was a student on a team, and I know many other "success stories" throughout the program, including some of the kids I've mentored since I became a volunteer. It has its issues as a program, but it is an incredible gift to a lot of students and I strongly encourage you to give a shot and have fun with it!
posted by olinerd at 2:01 AM on September 8, 2012

Also, here's a decent overview of FLL information. Here's a guide to starting a team.
posted by olinerd at 2:10 AM on September 8, 2012

Er. Whoops. Second link should go here.
posted by olinerd at 2:10 AM on September 8, 2012

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