Monday, December 29, 2014

First-time First LEGO League (FLL) Coach

There was a change of plans for coaching an FLL team over the summer.  Therefore, our school was not going to have a team.  I had been interested in coaching a team, but the teams had previously been led by parents.  I had never participated in FLL in any way.  However, I felt this was a fantastic opportunity to get my feet wet and provide students with the opportunity to do the same.

In years past, FLL participation had only been available to the middle level students at our K-8 school.  As the K-5 engineering teacher, I opened it up to students in 4th through 8th grades.  I did not send the signups home for all students but advertised on the school announcements for students to "apply" to be on the team.  The application process involved submitting information, in any format, about why the students wanted to be on the team, how they would be able to make the time commitment, and what made them a good team member.  I received six applications and was impressed with them all.  One of the applications that really made me reflect on why I was crazy enough to start a FLL team in October, before the mid-December competition, involved a student telling me he wanted to learn to be a better group member.  That was very powerful for me and very motivational as a coach.  

If you have not participated in FLL before, you may not realize that many teams begin in the spring around May or so.  They work through the summer and have ample time for the various aspects of the competition.  I did not realize this and it is a good thing since I probably would have thought the challenge before the team impossible or too daunting.  However, I am very proud of what the team produced in a matter of eight weeks with a novice coach.

It took some time to register as a team and order the field setup kit for the robotics game.  This gave us time to work on the project and begin preparing a poster for the team's implementation of the Core Values.  Once the field setup kit arrived, the team built the various components for the missions in the robotics game.  Once we analyzed the different missions, the team built robot models that they thought could handle the majority of the missions.  They voted on the best design based on performance on turns and stability.  The chosen design was then modified to include an arm needed for some of the missions.  They did get a little carried away making modifications to the design for the arm addition.  Also, the original arm was more complex than we had time for given that the team was building the robot two weeks before the December competition.  I did encourage them to look for a more simplistic arm design so that they could start programming.  I truly believe in the FLL values that the coach is simply a mentor and facilitator.  I helped by providing to-do lists, and assisting with the group dynamics.  They had approximately two weeks to program and had difficulty with the first mission they had decided on.  In retrospect, I probably should have had them move on to another mission as recommended in the coaching manual.  The team practiced their presentations and running the robot prior in the days prior to the competition with the team parents.  This also gave me the opportunity to organize lunches, snacks, and the responsibilities for the materials arriving at the competition.

The competition was a fantastic experience!  It reminded me of times in the past when my own children had competed in Future Cities and National History Day events.  Although the organizers made the robotics competitions very fun with the help of an announcer, I felt the most valuable part was the presentations and interactions with the judges.  The judges were fantastic in asking good questions and interacting with the students.  For many of the team members, this was one of the most challenging aspects of the competition.  The event was so fantastic that I found myself planning for next year.  Normally, after an involved time commitment such as this, I might have been second guessing whether there would be a next year.  Nevertheless, I am planning to start a team in spring of 2015, and I recommend to all who have the funding to participate.

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