The team is cheering on their leaders, set to take the field for their next run. The countdown is screamed through the gym and then – action! As the refs lower their arms the music blares and the screaming intensifies as competition starts. It’s just two kids taking on the field at each pass, getting through as many points as they can in 2:30 after months of careful design and programming. It’s all up to the robots now!
It’s not exactly an athletic competition, but it has all the important features of a sport (including that you can bet on it if you want). Welcome to First Lego League, the challenge of wits more than strength. It’s where the nerdier kids learn all the values of teamwork, persistence, and competition – and have a lot of fun!
My son George was part of a team at Expo Elementary which competed this weekend in the big tournament at Benjamin Mays Elementary. The core of the competition is designing and programming a Lego based robot to work through a set field with many opportunities to score through many different actions. The gladiators in this arena pick the challenges they want their robot to take on, then make it work with Lego arms programmed in a simple code for the movements. There are also extra points for presentations on the theme for the year, which in 2011 is food production and safety. The field of play includes farms, processors, and the family dinner table – tying the learning experience together.
With any of these tournaments, the fun is always in the enthusiasm of the kids. Since we are an inner city district the Lego warriors came in all levels of income and all the colors of skin, mixing it up in the pits as they put the final touches on their robots. Fair, even competition and desire to win united them all in one mind, at least until the tournaments started.
Though it is set up as a sporting event with head-to-head competition, the scoring is mostly done on team performance in points. The action is mainly for show, missing only Grant Imahara or some other celebrity geek as an emcee. It’s infectious, though, because most of these kids savor a chance to compete in the area that they work at the best – the tenacity to make something work. The hard part for many has been the long hours learning how to put it together as a team without arguing, but they have to learn how collaboration works before they are ready to be real engineers.
Three teams from each division went on to the State Tournament, though sadly George’s wasn’t one of them. He was happy enough to have his team medal, which he wore through the celebratory taco dinner we had after.
What sticks out through the whole event wasn’t just seeing so many kids from different backgrounds learning skills that will be valuable throughout life. It wasn’t even the spectacle created by the competitions and screaming crowds cheering them on. What really mattered was that it was a lot of fun and the simple joy of a craft done well sizzled through the young bodies and minds full of energy.
No matter what happens in this complex world we adults slog through, there will always be kids just being kids. A little direction now and then, perhaps an elaborate competition set up with a big show, helps guide those moments into something bigger and educational on many levels. But that can easily miss the point. The real lesson of the tournament is that with enough energy nearly anything can happen. When these kids grow up the world they craft will be as big as their imagination set on fire through events like First Lego League. It’s hard to imagine it has any limits at all.