If the word “LEGO” incites cringing memories of stepping on plastic blocks scattered across a living room floor, it’s time to expand your horizons. In middle school, those plastic blocks are a conduit to FIRST LEGO League, an annual global competition that challenges kids to think like scientists, solve real-world problems and build functioning robots.
Basalt Middle School has been home to an award-winning team since 2012. This fall at the regional competition in Aspen, the Longhornbots qualified for the state championship for a sixth time after taking home the top team award a fourth time as well.
With results like these, one might think that the Longhornbots use state-of-the-art equipment, are coached by an engineer and have oodles of money for supplies.
The reality is much different.
Since its beginning, the after-school team has relied on volunteer coaches, a shoe-string budget and bright, scrappy students who are intense about their process but surprisingly nonchalant about their success.
Here's how the competition works: Every year FIRST LEGO League releases a themed real-world problem. Teams are tasked with researching a solution and creating a presentation. They must display core values such as professionalism and innovation and also design an autonomous robot capable of completing complex tasks on a two-meter-long themed tabletop. This year's challenge was to solve a problem astronauts might face during space travel.
The BMS team chose to focus on designing a space freezer and a growing system to address nutrient degradation in space. The idea germinated in a robotics class, where 20 students brainstormed ideas while learning how to program a LEGO Mindstorms robot. The final after-school team then refined the idea, built a robot, and created a presentation for both judges and community members like the Lions Club.
The team gathered recently to talk about their process.
The biggest challenge they faced was choosing whose music to listen to while working. Building the robot, a notoriously fickle machine that requires precise coding, unwieldy attachments and a dash of luck, came in a close second. In competition, the robot must be able complete as many "missions" (like picking up an item or moving an item across the board) as possible in a scant 2 ½ minutes.
The adult coaches, Basalt Middle School teacher Amanda Kaufmann and parent Linda Hoffman, have continued the hands-off coaching strategy necessary to let the students run with their own ideas.
“When students are working to solve a challenge without adult direction, it allows them more room for trial and error, collaboration, learning from mistakes, and failure,” Kauffman says. “All of which help kids learn to persevere. My hope is that the kids learn the value of collaborating and working as a team. They enjoy each other and the time they spend together.”
Ask the team for the secret sauce to their success, and they all point to the same answer: teamwork.
“We all know our strengths, so we know what we can do to make each other better and what we can do to make our entire team better,” says eighth-grader Makai Yllanes.
Seventh-grader Isabel Mischke notes that there’s a strategy behind that emphasis.
“If we have a great team, we can get things done faster, meaning we can get more done,” she says. “Because of that, we can get a higher score.”
The competition hones skills that can be applied to other parts of life, such as learning to think critically and solve problems, work through conflict and take more time to analyze a situation. The students also earnestly indulge in a key core value: fun. They aren’t just posturing for extra points. When asked what they were looking forward to at the state competition, one mentioned spending time with his dad. Another was excited to take his first trip to Denver. A third said, “when we're done, we just get to hang out and play board games. It’s nice to chill and not be super stressed.”
That relaxed attitude can be a bonus with judges.
“We're not as uptight and serious as other teams,” says eighth-grader Dylan Morrison. “Judges appreciate seeing kids who have worked on their own project. Sometimes you can visually tell what team did it on their own and what team received loads of help from their coaches.”
In the end, the Longhornbots continue to rely on cardboard, markers and their own ingenuity, and they're just fine with that.
Connor Hoffman, the team’s senior member, who has been with the program for five years, feels the competition matters beyond his ability to practice core values, program robots or have a good time.
“Kids have great ideas," he says. “FLL gives us the opportunity to share our ideas not only with each other but with adults too. It lets kids offer their solutions and intuitions, and maybe in a different way than adults. We’re basically solving the world’s issues too."
While the team did not ultimately place at the state competition in Denver, Coach Linda Hoffman says that they did fit in plenty of time for board games.