Building a community of young learners

young students compete in the Arizona FIRST LEGO League


Numbers attest to the impressive growth of the Arizona FIRST LEGO League (AZ FLL) robotics and research competition.

In 2015 the program designed to ignite youngsters’ interest in science, technology, engineering and math — the STEM fields — drew about 3,000 9- to 14-year-old students to join 358 teams throughout the state.

Each of those figures are record highs, adding up to almost four times the numbers of students and teams involved in AZ FLL since Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering took over management operations in 2008.

But what tells the bigger story about the program’s success is the spirited ambience that pervaded the recent annual mid-December AZ FLL state championship tournament at ASU’s Tempe campus.

See the list of award winners at the 2015 Arizona FIRST LEGO League state championship tournament.

Jubilant scene during competition

Nearly 600 students on the 62 teams that earned their way to the championship — along with team coaches, mentors, teachers, parents and competition judges — created a festive atmosphere of joyful intensity at the event.

They were joined by many of the more than 100 ASU staff members, faculty and students who volunteered to facilitate activities on the day of the tournament or had helped make preparations for the event. ASU students built each of the 23 LEGO field kits used to stage the robotics competition.

What the scene made evident is that AZ FLL is not just expanding an educational outreach enterprise but is nurturing a growing community dedicated to fostering the excitement of learning, discovery and creativity.

Empowering experience for students

“This is about building a culture of STEM education, and I am seeing it transform these kids,” said David Thompson, a professor who helps lead the Center for Science Teaching and Learning at Northern Arizona University.

For about a decade Thompson has coached AZ FLL teams in northern Arizona, helped organize regional qualifying tournaments and served as one of the masters of ceremonies at the championship tournament.

“The robots are what catch the kids’ attention at first,” he said. “But once they get into the hands-on interaction with technology and they learn to do research and problem solving, it can empower them with a kind of confidence they’ve likely never had before.”

Taking on the Trash Trek challenge

AZ FLL requires teams to work throughout much of the year to design, build and program small robots made from LEGO MINDSTORMS robotics kits. Those skills are put to the test at tournaments, earning teams’ points for how effectively their robots perform a variety of technical maneuvers.

Teams also make presentations to competition judges on research projects based on a different theme each year. It requires youngsters to identify a real problem in their communities and apply basic science and engineering principles to develop potential solutions.

The 2015 theme was “Trash Trek,” which assigned students to come up with ways for society to cope with the pressing challenges presented by the growing amounts of trash and related pollution being produced around the world — with a focus on recycling and reuse of waste materials.

The championship tournament Platinum sponsor — most appropriately, given the research challenge theme — was Republic Services, the waste collection, recycling and disposal service company.

Sponsors for the qualifying regional tournaments included Salt River Project for Winslow, Raytheon for Tucson, and Intel for Chandler, along with Cisco Systems and Arizona Western College for the Yuma area.

student competing in the Arizona FIRST LEGO League

Student teams learn some of the basics of engineering, science and math by designing, building and programming small robots made from LEGO MINDSTORMS kits to compete in Arizona FIRST LEGO League tournaments. Photos by Jessica Hochreiter/ASU

Focusing on core values

The program is operated through FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), an international organization founded by Dean Kamen, the renowned inventor. FIRST develops and supports programs throughout the United States aimed at motivating students to pursue opportunities in STEM education and careers.

FIRST puts special emphasis on its “core values.” Teams are judged on how their efforts exemplify teamwork, respect for fellow competitors, friendship and appreciation for learning, and on sharing their discoveries with other students and their communities.

Promoting those values has been a strong point of AZ FLL under the leadership of the Fulton Schools of Engineering, said Kathy Vachon, a partner services manager for FIRST. She attended the recent state tournament to observe the event, as well as meet with AZ FLL leaders.

“It’s good to see the kids adopt the attitude that the competitions are more important to them for what they discover than for what they win,” Vachon said. “You see a real sense of camaraderie not only within teams but among the teams and the coaches.”

Teaching real-world lessons

The Fulton Schools “are doing a wonderful job developing a contingent of well-trained coaches and mentors and volunteers,” she added. “And by bringing a quality program to more communities each year, they are enriching their investment in the future of Arizona through providing these STEM education opportunities.”

Others echo that assessment.

“It’s the best outreach program I’ve seen to teach STEM subjects to kids,” said Laura Wittman, a former hydrogeologist. She and her husband, Craig Wittman, have been involved with FLL in Arizona and elsewhere for 16 years. She’s now an adviser to tournament judges.

They said the FLL competition mirrors the real world of technology development and business.

“You need to have teams with people who can do more than just make the technology,” said Craig, an engineer with Raytheon Company, an aerospace and defense technology company. “You need to have people who can explain how and why your product works. Your customers look at your team’s teamwork, and they take into consideration how they will interact with your team. It is not just the technical side of things used in their decision making.”

Picking up problem-solving skills

Erik Von Burg, a teacher of gifted students at Johnson Elementary School in Mesa, has coached more than a dozen FLL teams in the past eight years. He said the program is particularly valuable for teaching youngsters how to be professional.

“They face time constraints. The work can be a grind at times. They get stretched out in a lot of different directions,” he said. “So they have to learn to perform under pressure and put their best foot forward even when they are not as prepared as they want to be.”

Charlotte Ackerman is the teacher leader for scientific and engineering practices for the Catalina Foothills School District in Tucson. She has coached more than 60 student robotics teams in the past 13 years, including the Local Legends team that won the 2014 AZ FLL championship.

“Coaching FLL teams is demanding, but I’ve seen robotics inspire students to work like they’ve never worked before,” Ackerman said. “It’s work that stretches those valuable problem-solving skills.”

Competition encourages creativity

Katelyn Keberle was among the volunteers who helped manage activities at the state tournament. She was the Fulton Schools of Engineering outstanding graduate in the spring of 2014, when she received her bachelor's degree in materials science and engineering.

“I really like volunteering, especially when it supports STEM education,” said Keberle, who is now a process engineer for W. L. Gore & Associates in Phoenix. “I participated in many science competitions in middle school and high school. It was a big reason that I went into engineering. I loved the teamwork and the creativity and the challenge. So it was exciting to support the FLL organization and all the parents and teachers who support their kids doing this.”

The FLL challenge is “the best way I’ve seen to have fun and learn at the same time,” said Daja Harris. “Teachers say they can tell which students have been in FLL because they all have really good presentation skills.”

She and husband Russell Harris, an engineer at General Dynamics, have coached seven FLL teams of students from the Mesa Academy for Advanced Studies. Five of the teams have made it to a state championship tournament.

“The kids see these robots, and they want to jump right in and learn how to make them work,” Russell said. “They learn that to be competitive they also have to be cooperative.”

Learning about leadership

They also learn planning and organization, project management, time management and public speaking,” said Christine Sapio, a science teacher at Coconino High School in Flagstaff. She has been one of the state tournament’s masters of ceremonies for eight years, a coach of numerous robotics teams and an organizer of regional tournaments.

“It’s not just about building a robot. I’ve had students who were too shy to talk in class, and after being in FIRST robotics programs they would speak about their projects in front of schools boards and city councils,” Sapio said. “We’ve got kids who are excited about being proactive in their communities and helping people.”

Seventh-grader Dylan Maki and sixth-grader Jamie Ledbetter are confident that at least one accomplishment of their FLL team project will have some lasting impact. Team Toxic from Sonoran Science Academy in Tucson created an interactive game designed to teach children about recycling and why it’s important.

“It teaches them how to recycle, and it’s fun to play. It will make them want to recycle,” Maki said.

He and Ledbetter said they’re now hooked on robotics for the foreseeable future. Maki is looking forward to learning advanced robotics programming. Ledbetter, a rookie on the team this year, sees herself taking on a leadership position in the years ahead.

“I learned about being on a team,” she said. “You see how there are different people with different roles and ideas. Not everyone gets along perfectly all the time, but you learn how to compromise and keep going.”

team competing in the Arizona FIRST LEGO League

There are moments of high intensity at the tournament, as participants concentrate on preparing their robots to perform a variety of technical maneuvers necessary to win points for their teams.

Bright outlook for future growth

AZ FLL is poised to not only keep going, but is picking up steam. In 2016, the number of students and teams participating is expected to rise once again.

In 2015, thanks to support from the Cisco company’s sponsorship and a first-time partnership with Arizona Western College, a new regional qualifier was established to handle a rapid rise in the number of teams in Yuma area. The event drew about 250 youngsters on 35 teams.

An outlook for similar growth in other areas of the state has set plans in motion to add one or two more regional qualifying tournaments to the 14 held in 2015, and to extend the championship tournament into a two-day event.

More importantly, AZ FLL will be extending its reach geographically, especially to rural, remote and underserved communities, said Jennifer Velez, a senior K-12 outreach coordinator for the Fulton Schools of Engineering and the managing partner for FIRST LEGO League in Arizona.

“Word has really gotten out about all the ways that being in FLL is benefitting young students,” Velez said. “Schools and teachers and parents, especially in the communities that don’t have a lot of resources, really want their kids to have this kind of inspirational experience that can give them an educational advantage.”

Of course the selling point for AZ FLL is a bit different for the youngsters. The attraction is made clear by the buzz of exhilaration exhibited during the championship tournament, and articulated point-blank by Team Toxic members Maki and Ledbetter, emphasizing every word: “It is just so much fun.”

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