Sunday, September 21, 2008

It is really hard

First Lego League appears deceptively easy at first, but when you get into it, it is a lot harder. Lego's are easy to build, so people would think that the challenges are easy to. The challenges are built to be hard. They often put things in the corner or put one challenge in front of another. This makes a seemingly easy challenge harder.

I've been part of lego league for three years. The first year we would go out and do a single challenge. We were lucky if it worked. That year, when we did our challenges, our robot runs weren't very accurate. The second year, we tried to do at least two challenges per run and we tried to not to make too many turns. Now, we are in the third year and we are doing multiple challenges per run. It has been working pretty well.

We started when we were pretty young. Our oldest player was eleven and some of us were nine. The original team is still together and really like each other. There is a lot of respect among the team members. Every year, we have gotten better. In our first year, only Patrick could program. In our second year, more of us could program. This year, everyone truly can do everything.

We have not stopped practicing since we began Nanoquest. We worked on some of the old challenges like Ocean Odyssey during the off-season. We even brought out Nanoquest and did it again in March of this year. I look forward to Lego League every Friday night. It is three hours of pure fun!

Still, I never forget that lego league is really hard. Sometimes I have to remind the coaches and mentors of this. Since they have never built a sophistocated attachment or program, it is easy for them to think it is easy. But it isn't. It is especially hard this year.


Friday, September 19, 2008

A Sad Situation

Some of the Microbots take Tae Kwon Do at the Middle Creek Community Center. As I was picking them up, I noticed that they had "First Lego League (9-11) (12-14)" written on their whiteboard. My feeling upon reading this was one of happiness. Middle Creek was building not just one team but two!

I asked the gentleman at the counter about this and he said, "I am sorry. We had to cancel the class. There just weren’t enough people signed up."

Starting a First Lego League team requires a lot of resources. The most common problems that I have seen with new teams are the need for coach (or coaches) and a place to practice. A first year team will require a lot of education (mostly programming) and that means a lot of time spent with the team for the coach. Many parents are reluctant to sign up for such a time commitment. You also need a place where you can meet. This place must be big enough to set up a 4’x8’ mat with the missions. Middle Creek Community Center seemed to have both.

"Oh no!” I remarked to the gentleman at the desk. "I know lots of folks who are looking for a team. I can send them to you. He took my email and told me that he would pass it on to the person who had organized the classes. I am hoping that he sends me an email because I do get a lot of parents who want to find a team. If you are looking for a team, you might want to call the center and pursue this.

You see, this is how the Microbots got started. I went to Wake Forrest (an hour drive from Raleigh) to attend an organizing session. The fellow who was putting together the team, James T., asked if anyone was from Cary. I said “Yes”. He sent me the email addresses of 13 parents who wanted to be part of a team. I organized a meeting at Colonial Baptist Church to talk about Lego League.

A friend of mine, Kyle B., was one of the emailers. He taught the kids how to program and then we each took seven of the kids and formed the Spacebots and the Microbots. Both teams are still in FLL, three years later. It has been challenging but also intensely rewarding. Let me just say that FLL is an intense experience for young people. But if you have a child that wants to become an engineer, it is the “Little League” of engineering.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Brush With Greatness

Our first year was a very difficult one. While we had many builders, we were a young team and Patrick and Clark were the only ones who could program. In the challenges, we actually did pretty well for our lack of experience. We came in under the average in terms of point total on the challenges but not near the bottom. We were thrilled at how well we had done.

This was the 2006 NC State FLL Championship and the powerhouse in our state was Magellan Charter School (see the academics section of the web page for their fll accomplishments). In that championship, we had a friendship round, an opportunity for multiple teams to work together to compete against other teams working together. As we stood side by side with the Magellan team, they all seemed to be six feet tall.

The Microbots met with them before the round started and they shared some of their secrets with us. It was amazing how they were accomplishing multiple missions with a single run. They were much older and they could have brushed us off but they didn't. They let us look at their robot and showed us some of their attachments. Our builders took notes.

They asked us what our best run was and we said "Individual Atom Manipulation". They said "then you will do that". We thought, "these guys are the epitome of gracious professionalism". We spent probably a half an hour talking with them. Our coaches even had to come looking for us. We were going to miss the challenge!

We won the “friendship challenge” with their help or maybe they won it with our help. They also won the NC State Championship and we said we want to be just like them someday.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Building the Bot

I've been asked to write a bit about how we go about building our challenge robot.  As I thought about it, I've realized that our methods have changed over the past three years.  For instance, the first year we had three people working on the robot and they just started to build.  We didn't talk about what we would do or plan in any way.  Our robot turned out very big and clunky.  We didn't even change it as the season went on.  In our second year everyone built their own design on their own and then met and voted on what design we liked best.  But then, we decided that we didn't like that design and another team member came up with a robot and we just kept that.  This, our third year, in my opinion has been the most successful.  This is what we did.
We had 8 hours to come up with a design for this years upcoming challenge-Climate Connections.  First we sketched out our ideas for certain parts of the robot such as wheels, base and framing.  We voted on our favorite designs for each of those parts and then put them all together.  Then we sketched out our final design.  
Now came the fun part-building it!  We had one team building the framing of the general robot.  The second team was working on the wheels.  The third worked on attachment framing.  The result was a very sturdy and accurate robot.  Now that I've shared a bit about how our team has approached the building, here are some other things you need to consider in any robot design.  
Simplicity is key-this is especially important if your robot falls apart (during competition even) you need to be able to quickly rebuild without having to go back to your blue print.  This brings up a good thing to do-document your robot on LDD (LEGO digital designer) or by taking multiple pictures of it as you build.  Simplicity also becomes a plus when you have to make a battery switch-this almost always involves taking the brick off the frame in order to switch batteries.  You don't want to remove the brick and not be able to figure out how to get it back on!  Another thing to consider in this area is how will you access the ports.  Make sure that your framing doesn't make it impossible to get to your ports.  Lastly, a very important thing is being able to see your screen.  Without clearly seeing the LCD screen, you can't navigate through your programs or see what program the robot is currently on.  
I've got lots more to say but, that's enough for a new team to consider.  Hopefully, you can read this and learn to not make the same mistakes we did when building our robot.  See you at competition!  

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

FLL Core Values

We are a team.

We do the work to find solutions with guidance from our coaches and mentors.

We honor the spirit of friendly competition.

What we discover is more important than what we win.

We share our experiences with others.

We display gracious professionalism in everything we do.

We have fun.