Saturday, November 22, 2008

How To Successfully Coach a FLL Team

Our robot affectionately named Robbie has crashed. The left button is now stuck on even though it is brand new. As a result, it cycles through the menus and will not run our completed programs. I am sure it is still under warrantee but it is two weeks until competition and our backup robot runs the programs differently.

So what is a coach to do? Two weeks until competition and all of the programs have to be rebuilt? Coach Medina and I have become accomplished ping pong players. At first, he beat me regularly but I have started to "give him a game". Since the Microbots do the work, we lamented over Robbie and buried him (sent him back to the manufacturer). Then we got back to our ping pong games as any third year coach would do.

When the going gets tough, the tough get going! We coaches played some our best ping pong games. Coach Medina is up two games to one at the present time. There was a time when I couldn't win. Meanwhile, the Microbots are back to the drawing board. Doing what they always do.

Growth and Learning....

FIRST LEGO League is all about the kids – learning, applying what was learned, growing and having fun. But as our State Competition draws near and we enter Thanksgiving week (also known among the Microbots as Microbot Bootcamp week), as all the kids and coaches and parents get ready for the last push of a very intense fall, and as we all just keep saying “we just need to hold on until December 7th and then we can sleep” it’s good to step back and look at what the year’s been about.

I’ve been especially amazed by the growth in the kids this year. What they’ve accomplished this year on all fronts they couldn’t have even dreamed of last year – or come close to even imagining their first year in FLL!

We’ve seen the growth physically – from deepening voices to acne breakouts, bigger feet, kids who can look me in the eyes, the need for deodorant, and brains that shut off and fall asleep as their bodies focus on growing.

We seen growth in general knowledge and learning – huge leaps in skills in robot engineering and design, programming, researching, and writing; learning new skills like website design and survey development; conquering computer applications like PowerPoint, Word, Photoshop, and Kompozer; making full use of online tools like SurveyMonkey, NING, Noodlebib, Writeboard and Lego Digital Designer (whose capacity really maxes out with a 3000 piece design set).

There has been huge growth in team work – understanding how to brainstorm positively, how to communicate as a team online, by phone, and in person throughout the week, week after week, how each individual piece of the puzzle has to fit together to make a much bigger whole, how to work individually, in pairs, in threes, and as an entire group, how to fill in for each other when things fall apart, how “Noob” may be a positive phrase or a negative phrase.

In the specific research project they’ve chosen, they’ve also grown in long term more intangible knowledge and skills – how small the world really is as they watched their website statistics count up the visitors from state after state to continent after continent, how they can make a difference globally as people responded about water issues from all parts of the globe, how they can write emails to large, anonymous websites for permission to use photos and get real people answering them with positive encouragement and enthusiasm, how they can talk to state legislators about different issues and have them listen.

And in long term individual organizational skills, they’ve each learned a lot this year about how important the tiny details are in research and programming, how to push on when they get tired, how to follow through to the end after deciding to aim extremely high in both research and programming, how to keep going the direction they need to head despite the differing opinions of the coaches, and how to work with deadline after deadline in an almost overwhelming process.

These kids are just 11, 12 and 13 but because of their team work, their spirit, and their unflagging friendship and desire to work and play together day after day, week after week, they have the (almost always!) unflagging support of 12 parents and 8 tag-along siblings as they keep moving forward. I doubt that any of the parents or coaches could keep up the pace if it wasn’t for the desire, the growth, and the huge benefits we see that these 6 kids gain from each other and the FLL projects. Growth can be painful, frustrating and hard sometimes but it can also be a beautiful thing to watch and be a part of!

Now… to just push on for the next 2 weeks to try to get everything done before competition…!!!!

Mrs. W (Research Coach)

Saturday, November 8, 2008

About Research

We have two FLL seasons under our belt, and better yet, two first place trophies, both in Research. The research project is often overlooked, and the Unofficial Guide to First LEGO League said that it was "easy" and a "science project". To whoever is reading this post, the writer(s) of this book must not have seen and/or made a research project in the last 4 years. The team went to the 2007 world championship in Atlanta, Georgia, and was blown away by the size and quality of the competing teams research presentations. This year we are literally blowing our minds trying to compile pages and pages of research on an extremely tight schedule. This is neither easy nor insignificant.

Much of the thanks for our research success should go to our research coach, who has a flair for organization and heavy duty research, and I am NOT kidding! She has kept us in line and put up with us for almost 3 years, and we haven't done bad. Her oversight has really made our projects what they have been. From what I have learned in these 3 years, here are 3 keys which I feel are important to having a competitive project.

The first key to success is that the judges like to see that a team compiled a lot of research. Last year when we won first place in research, we gave them about a 100 page book with a complete bibliography, a DVD from some of our field trips, and a summary of all the research we did.

The second key to success is to have a creative presentation. The judges that are watching you have dozens of teams ahead of them, and they won't give you high points unless they stay with you. Teams must have a creative presentation to keep them focused and listening to your research. Having lots of good research is nothing if the judges shut down their brains and don't hear a thing you say.

The final key to success is taking what you have learned, and affecting the community with it. Teams have gone to worlds because of the way they have impacted the community with their presentation, and the judges where really impressed. Part of the challenge this year is sharing the things we have learned! Last year we had to take what we learned from our energy audit that we made, and make recommendations to the building we audited.

Again, completing all this is NOT easy. The project this year is the toughest we have ever done. But it is important in order to win, to score high on the presentation. Got research?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Time Out

After burning the candle heavily every weekend, Coach Medina has decided to take the Microbots bowling on Friday night. Friday is usually spent conducting research with Coach Whipker during the day and on the table in the evening. Many a Microbot has been burned out by 6pm after an intensive day of research. Thursdays and Saturdays are the more productive days on the table (yes, we meet three days a week).

The Microbots have been working on Robotics all year since our first year. It started with a single pair of programmers, two or three builders, and a run team of two people. We are a different team than we were when we first started. Every member of the team can program, build, or run the robot. They have really evolved from the young people that were overwhelmed by the competition to team members that like to meet and work together.

They have decided to go for it this year but there are many other very capable teams. The North Carolina State Championship, like many other states, is a very competitive FLL event. We are part of the 80 teams that will compete this year. Over the past two months, we have had team members sleeping during practice, fighting through colds, and working on their “day off”.

To reward them for their hard work, and prepare for the last month, we will go bowling instead of practicing. They certainly deserve the break.