Nope, we’re not at a sports game, but rather watching a robot, made of Legos, and built and programmed by a team of young students, compete at the FIRST® LEGO® League (FLL) robotics tournament. Last Saturday, November 19, marked our sixth year hosting a qualifying tournament at Google headquarters. This year, 16 Bay Area teams made up of 9-14 year olds participated, energizing our campus with their enthusiasm and even a spontaneous conga line or two.
I’m a software engineer with a longtime personal interest in LEGO robotics and, even more, in getting kids excited about doing science and technology. When fellow Google engineer Albert Bodenhamar and I heard about the tournament awhile back, we put together a team of volunteers at Google, got in touch with the FLL regional coordinators—the nonprofit group Playing at Learning—and held our first tournament. Now we host the event every year, with a cadre of 25-30 Googlers, spouses and friends who spend the day volunteering as judges and referees and help with all of the set-up and logistics.
The center of the action during tournament day was the two ping pong-sized tables where these homegrown robots raced against the clock to complete various physical tasks, all related to the tournament theme of food safety. The tables were covered with small “props” the robots would need. For example, at one point, the robots had to scoop up, carry and then empty dispensers of little plastic "bacteria" into a miniature plastic sink at the opposite end of the table. Referees in black-and-white striped shirts started and stopped the clock and kept their eyes out for penalties while the MC gave play-by-plays of the action. Meanwhile, parents and coaches crowded around, cheering and taking photographs, and the action was broadcast on a jumbo screen for all to see.
When not competing at the tables, teams met with three different sets of judges. One panel of judges asked students about their robot (how they designed it, how it worked), while another set asked about core values (how they worked together as a team, the learning process, camaraderie). In front of the third set of judges, the teams presented their research projects and answered questions. The research project, while unrelated to robotics, aims to incorporate research and problem-solving—keys to the success of any real-world engineering team—into the competition.
At the end of the day, we announced awards. The team Nibbles & Bytes took home the Core Values award, Decon Droids won the award for best Research Project, Xtreme Creators won for Robot Design and the Flying Cougar Cyborgs won for Robot Performance. The LegoNauts took home the Champion’s award. Seven teams advanced to the district championship, which will take place in Redwood City, Calif. in January. Eventually, the tournament reaches the national, and then international, level.
It’s important, not to mention fun, to support creative outlets for young people to get involved in computer science and technology. Competitions like FLL introduce a whole new generation to the world of technology and engineering, and it’s always a blast to support the students who are participating—even if I am a bit exhausted after that conga line.
If you want to get involved with FLL, you can check the website to find out if a team exists in your area, or register a new one.
Posted by Glenn Trewitt, software engineer and FLL tournament director