Each year, teams of middle school students build and program a small robot to accomplish various challenges, investigate a research topic of their choice and work towards being a cohesive group that demonstrates teamwork, respect, cooperation, team spirit, professional and inclusion.
FLL selects a different theme each year, which is drawn from real events in society.
For 2011, it was “Food Factor.”
In Washington state, there are several regional tournaments and two state championships (Eastern and Western).
Team AI, a group of 9 to 14- year-old homeschoolers (Avery Dailidenas, Davis Luanava, Hannah Hewland, Isa Luanava, Matthew Newland, Natalie Koch and Nicky McDonald) had a highly successful season and brought home gold with an award for “Gracious Professionalism” at regionals and one for “Inspiration” at the State level.
At regionals, the kids were up against 25 other teams and at state, over 50 groups competed.
Team AI began working together in September to create and assemble their robot and program it to do various actions within a specific time period.
Each challenge performed successfully during competition earns the team points, whereas if errors are made, penalties are given.
“The kids had to do things like release “bacteria” (small plastic balls in a container), collect plastic fish from an imaginary ocean, raise a thermometer and turn it to cold, deliver plastic grocery items to a miniature kitchen table and more,” explains Laura Koch, parent of Natalie, 12, one of the students on Team AI.
She adds, “Sometimes, teams are able to do the challenges in practice, but then when competition comes, they have difficulty performing them. Nerves, of course, play a part in all of this.”
For its research project, Team AI chose to investigate the problem of blue plastic bands in chicken nuggets as its topic.
“We were really surprised at how many cases of plastic were found in chicken nuggets,” comments Natalie. “Between 2000 and 2011, over 500,000 pounds of chicken nuggets were recalled for plastic contaminants. That’s more cases than salmonella.”
She adds, “Everyone on our team said we’d never eat chicken nuggets again!”
The kids’ solution to this problem was to recommend using food grade edible plastic tags that wouldn’t be a contaminant if accidentally left in the food.
Judges for the competitions are volunteers from the community. Many are professional engineers and programmers. Each team meets with judges three times: for a technical review of its robot, to present its research and to demonstrate how it learned FLL’s Core Values.
Awards are given in various categories including project research, project presentation, mechanical design, programming, robot performance and Core Values. All groups are assessed on Core Values behavior throughout the competition.
“We were really happy to get awards in the Core Values,” says Natalie. “It’s only the second time in five years that we’ve gotten any awards.”
She adds, “Our team divided up the responsibilities and everyone did what they were supposed to. We had good teamwork and good team spirit and I think we respected each other.”
The local girl enjoyed helping build the robot, which was her favorite part of the project.
Most challenging was programming it to do the specific actions.
“Some of the actions are hard,” she comments, “like having the robot transfer the hoop with the plastic rat to a base and having it retrieve the little trailer.”
Team AI plans to compete again next season and hopes to add to its medal collection, but as Natalie says, “We do it because it’s a lot of fun.”