New Kids on the Bots

December 2016
Written By: 
Hastings Hensel
Photographs by: 
Randall Hill

Local kids learn S.T.E.M. skills by competing in the First LEGO League

The First LEGO League is an international robotics programming competition for kids 9-14 years of age.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, not long after the last bell has rung at their Carolina Forest Elementary School, a team of six students calling themselves “New Kids on the Bots” gathered at Brandy Incorvia’s house, in the Avalon neighborhood, to do what many kids the whole world over do after school—play with LEGOs.

But these aren’t ordinary kids. They aren’t constructing your standard princess castles or space stations or pirate ships. They’re hovering above an 8-by-4-foot table with an official First LEGO League game board map spread across it. And the team isn’t exactly playing—in the sense of pure, purposeless amusement. They’re working to program a LEGO Mindstorms EV3 robot so that it turns when detecting, with its ultrasonic sensor, a plastic wall on the game board.

Their aim is for the robot to turn down a road on the map and knock over a plastic gate, which causes a LEGO dog to indicate to a “blind” LEGO man that there is traffic on the road and that he should not cross. Elsewhere on the board, other LEGO animals need the robot’s help—LEGO seals need to get home, LEGO cows need milking, LEGO pandas need returning to the wild.

These are a few of the missions that fall into this year’s First LEGO League “Animal Allies” theme, which emphasizes the ways animals and humans interact in the world. During competitions, each team has three two-and-a-half minute rounds to complete as many missions as possible, with the best round earning the final score.

“We very much make it as much of a sport atmosphere as possible,” says Louis Rubbo, the president of South Carolina First LEGO League & Robotics Education, an official First LEGO League Partner, and a Coastal Carolina University associate professor of physics. “We’re in a gym. We call it ‘The Sport of the Mind.’ They come in here, and they’re under the lights, and we have an emcee and music going.”

Since some missions are worth more points than others, teams must strategize for months in order to figure out the relative value of each task. Thus, each “New Kids on the Bot” practice—on every Thursday and Sunday afternoon in the fall—is very much an exercise in analytical thinking. When something goes wrong—as when the robot crashes into the plastic wall on its first try—the kids are forced to answer the reflective questioning of their coach, Brandi Incorvia.

“What is it picking up?” she asks, about the sensor.

“Maybe it’s too high,” Trent Toole surmises.

“If it’s too high, what do we need to do?”

“I told you we need to adjust it!” cries Olivia Nelson, who is both Incorvia’s daughter and something like the team’s de facto captain.

Toole and fellow 10-year-old Jayden Johnson thus leave the board and search for the right pieces from a large pile of LEGOs in the corner of the next room. They’ll use these pieces to lower the sensor on the robot. Meanwhile, teammates and sisters Kendall (8) and Kaelyn Williamson (10) look at the laptop computer and double-check their drop-and-drag programming. Olivia Nelson starts telling a story about a moment when she accidentally programmed the robot backwards so that it threw an object she wanted it to scoop up.

The atmosphere is remarkably both light and committed. Indeed, one might say that First LEGO League is the academic equivalent of sneaking vegetables into a kid’s favorite meal, as when a mom passes off pureed carrots on toast as a grilled cheese. The kids are having fun while also learning invaluable skills.

“It definitely helps me with my math and my decimals,” says Olivia Nelson, but she quickly adds: “At school we have to try and stay focused. Here we can sort of goof off a little because we can’t always just focus on one thing for a while. So sometimes when we’re reading or something, we’ll giggle or laugh or play a little.”

To ensure well-roundedness, the First LEGO League requires more than successful game board mission completion. The teams also practice Core Values—group exercises that emphasize team cooperation, working in sync, listening to leaders, learning on their own and (most importantly) having fun.

During competitions, the teams enter into a judging room (without their coach) and must participate in a group activity they’ve never seen before; one year, for example, they had to build the tallest staircase they could out of JENGA blocks, all without talking. Then they must give a presentation to the judges, complete with a tri-board talk and a follow-up Q&A, demonstrating how they used the Core Values during their season.

On this day, Core Values practice means—much to the delight of the team—that after programming, everyone goes into the backyard for a kind of LEGO-building game of Telephone. One team member privately watches Incorvia build a structure consisting of five differently colored LEGOs. That team member then must pass along the instructions to another team member, who must then pass on the directions to the next, and so on and so on, until the final team member attempts to build Incorvia’s original structure.

The exercise quickly becomes frustrating, and then just as quickly becomes a lesson in listening and paying attention.

“Did I tell you that you had to whisper?” Incorvia asks, with a bemused smile.

The team lets out mock groans, realizing they could have listened more closely and thus communicated better with each other in order to complete the Core Values task.

Incorvia offers them a final Core Values thought: “Think about what you have to say, and what you don’t have to say.”

Remarkably, however, there is still more work-play to be done. The final component of the competition is a research project on a real world problem in which the team comes up with a solution. Last year, for instance, with the recycling theme “Trash Trek,” teams had to follow a piece of trash, its life cycle, and find out what the problem was and how it might be fixed. One team farmed mealworms to break down Styrofoam.

For this year’s “Animal Allies” theme, the “New Kids on the Bots” have been racking their brains about possibly building a doggy door that automatically opens whenever it detects smoke. After Core Values, they circle in the living room around their coach, who says, “Fire alarm door. Is that something you actually think you can do?”

Olivia Nelson says, “We could talk to the fire department. If they make one, maybe they could adapt it.”

They all agree it’s a start. Maybe they could visit the fire department. And maybe the aquarium, too—to talk with someone about the problems with sea turtles. Maybe they could build some kind of pathway for sea turtles to make it successfully to the ocean.

The kids are excited. It’s almost dinner time. They successfully programmed the robot to turn. They’re thinking more about listening closely. They know they have field trips in their future. They know they have a world to save.