For the past two years, I’ve been extremely fortunate to mentor a FIRST Lego League (FLL) robotics team of fifth and sixth graders. To be honest, I’m a little jealous of my mentees and wish FLL had been offered in my area when I was in junior high and high school. The first semester of my freshman year of college, the Society of Women Engineers chapter at Illinois was looking for college students who wanted to mentor robotics teams. I volunteered, thinking that I had enough knowledge from the Lego robotics I did in my AP physics class. Oh, how wrong I was. I can easily say that it has been of the most difficult and rewarding activities of my college career thus far. I also believe that I’ve learned more from the kids I work with than I’ve been able to teach them.
FLL is a great example of where engineering education is going as well as an opportunity for anyone in K-12 education to get interested in really being an engineer (or at least knowing what an engineer is). Woodie Flowers, an MIT professor and distinguished partner of Olin College, started the original robotics competitions aimed at high school students in 1989 which were aimed for more middle school and high school students. FLL, for middle school students and younger, began in 1998 as a pilot program with only 210 participants. In the past fifteen years, it’s expanded to reach over 200,000 students in over 60 countries just under 20,000 students participating in the competition this year.
SeniorSolutionslogo
The FLL robotics competition’s main component that people recognize is the robotics component. Every year, a theme is announced and then missions relating to the theme are set up on a table in the form of an obstacle course of sorts. This year, Senior Solutions missions included using a computer and lifting a weight for exercise. To complete missions, students design the body and other motor components for their robot. Then they program the robot to complete the mission(s) using a straightforward language designed by Lego. Children can decide when the robot should move, which motors should move, how long it should move for, and also play with sensors (light, ultrasonic, etc.). In the competition, they even have to explain their methods to judges. It’s a great guide to programming that’s actually fun (which is more than I can say about my experience with C and Unix programming in CS 101).
Though the mission aspect of FLL is the most well known and prominent aspect, it is only one of three main components. Another component is a research project which also pertains to the theme. Students pick a problem and develop a solution to it that is not necessarily related to robotics. In 2011,  my mentees chose the Food Factor problem of salmonella contamination in chocolate, a favorite topic of theirs. They proceeded to talk to a CEO of small chocolate company and came to the conclusion that probiotics to decontaminate chocolate. They then wrote and performed a skit presenting their idea.The research project allows kids to take a problem that they care about and empowers them to do something to fix it.
The mission and research components of FLL are accurate representations of engineering and are wonderful ways to get students interested in the STEM fields. The final component in FLL however is not often found within engineering education today and this is the point I want to end with. FLL has a teamwork (Core Values) aspect to it that gives students an opportunity for the group of FLL participants to show how programming and researching has turned them into a team that works together and listens to each others’ ideas. Engineering education does focus on group projects, but groups are not teams. How often does one person do all of the work while another does nothing? How often does someone try to speak up only to be overshadowed by another? How many students (college, high school and middle school) can actually say they enjoy group projects?
How the typical student reacts when asked i
f they’re excited for a group project
FLL focuses on its two trademark words: gracious professionalism (high quality work which values others) and coopertition (kindness and respect that allows people to learn from one another even during competition). These are necessary qualities for the real world because being an employed engineer means working with other people every single day. One must be able to communicate and listen to other people, but employers often complain of engineers lacking such social skills, making teamwork almost ineffective. FLL wants to change this by emphasizing growth as a team. Most universities fail to put such value in teamwork. So please, do me a favor. Next time you’re doing a group project, focus on working together instead of only doing your part of the work. It will be amazing what your team is able to accomplish.
If you would like more information about how to support FIRST Lego League robotics, please visit this website for more information.

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