Arizona robotics competition unleashes young students' creative drive

LEGO League Tournament at ASU

Growing outreach program is helping to teach valuable skills to thousands

A high-spirited assemblage of more than 500 young students brought a boisterous atmosphere of anticipation, intensity and excitement to the recent Arizona FIRST LEGO League (AZ FLL) state championship tournament.

Sixty-two teams of students ages 8 to 14 amassed at Arizona State University’s Tempe campus for the robotics competition designed to spark their interest and boost their basic skills in science, technology, engineering and math.

It was the largest AZ FLL event ever, continuing fast-paced growth for the education outreach program that has been managed for the past seven years by ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

Record-breaking year

The teams that took top awards at a series of regional competitions to earn their way to the state tournament were among a record 335 teams to participate in AZ FLL activities in the past year – four times the number of teams involved in 2008.

There were 176 school teams; 11 Girl Scouts troops teams; six neighborhood teams; five formed through the Si Se Puede (“Yes, It’s Possible”) Foundation; nine teams of home-schooled students; and 17 others consisting of family members and friends – involving more than 2,000 Arizona students in all.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is an international organization founded by renowned inventor Dean Kamen. FIRST develops programs to motivate students to pursue opportunities in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

Emphasis on teamwork and discovery

In FLL activities around the world each year, teams of middle school-age students work for months to design, build and program small robots made from LEGO MINDSTORMS kits. At tournaments, the robots must perform various maneuvers and technical tasks to earn points.

In addition, the international FLL organization assigns a different theme for competitions each year that’s based on a societal challenge.

The 2014 challenge was “FLL World Class: Learning Unleashed.” Teams had to propose innovative science-, engineering- and technology-based ways to teach the new knowledge and skills that today’s young students will need to thrive in the 21st century.

Teams are judged on their problem-solving ideas for meeting the challenge, and on adherence to FLL’s “core values” – including teamwork and “gracious professionalism,” exemplified by respect for fellow competitors, friendship, sharing and valuing learning and discovery.

See a list of award winners at the Arizona FIRST LEGO League 2014 state championship tournament.

Competition energizes students

AZ FLL “teaches them how to do far more than robot design skills,” said Christine Sapio, a physics teacher at Coconino High School in Flagstaff, who has been the master of ceremonies at the state tournament for the past seven years. “It teaches them how to do research, how to speak in public, how to work as a team and work to a deadline. Those are skills that are useful no matter what career the kids choose.”

As part of her work to earn a master’s degree in science teaching recently from Northern Arizona University, Sapio developed “FLL in a Nut Shell,” a curriculum that provides coaches of FLL teams a startup guide and education standards so that lessons based on the FLL program can be applied in classrooms.

“I love FLL because it gets kids excited about STEM subjects at an early age, and I love the energy and creativity the kids bring to the competitions. It’s so beneficial because it gets kids to think critically,” She said. “In teacher speak, this is project-based learning at its finest. You tell them 'Here's a challenge, figure it out!' Kids don't get enough of that type of learning in a traditional classroom.”

It’s work, but it’s fun

Coaches and parents at the state tournament echoed Sapio’s viewpoint on the value of the AZ FLL experience for students.

Mike Chesko, coach of the Master Builders team of seven boys from various schools in Chandler and Gilbert, said, “The kids have a lot of fun focusing on the robot games, but what they are learning is really more about team building and how to come up with ideas.”

Master Builder team member Pranav Kumar said, “The biggest thing I’m learning is how to cope with other people.”

Eric Scheidemandel, coach of Welding Lizards, six boys who attend Oakwood Elementary School in Peoria, said team members are “learning how to work to together and having fun,” but also getting an equally important lesson about “learning how to deal with failure.”

AZ FLL has become a Scheidemandel family endeavor. Eric’s son John is on the team, following in the footsteps of older brother Joseph, who now serves as an FLL tournament referee.

Commitment to the goal

Coach Mark Pond said members of the Knight-N-Galz – five girls, including his daughter Hannah, from the Mesa Academy for Advanced Studies – have learned teamwork and time management, along with some math and robot programming.

Most of all, Pond said, they’ve developed a strong commitment to their goals. “They’ve been working hard three days a week on their project. If you have any despair about the future of our society, then you should spend some time with these kids. They are so smart and so much fun. I’m so proud of them I can’t stand it.”

Coach Bess Trevino said the 10 boys on the Granite Tesseractors team (in geometry, a tesseract is a four-dimensional analog of the cube) from Granite Mountain Middle School in Prescott, including her son Ethan, have been learning “how to deal with frustration, and to overcome setbacks.”

As they prepared their robot for its performance at the tournament, “They were a little nervous, but it’s still an amazing experience for them to be here and see all these different teams and what they’ve accomplished,” she said.

Persistence and perseverance

It was a similar experience for members of the Martian Nuggets from the Anthem community in the Phoenix area, said coach Rhonda Lucas of the six boys and two girls on the team, including her sons Ethan and Dallin.

The team’s robot and the laptop computer containing its programming were stolen from a car a week before the tournament.

“They had to rebuild their robot and put the programming together again in the last week. So they have been on an emotional roller coaster,” Lucas said. “But they are showing perseverance and learning to keep a positive attitude.”

The boys and girls of the Rock Lobsters from Flagstaff said they had learned to communicate effectively as a team, which included staying out of arguments that hindered progress. “They have learned to be persistent and to stick with it when they have problems,” said Paul Grams, whose son Tucker is on the team and in his 4th year participating in AZ FLL.

Showing determination

Karin Vigesaa was at the state tournament with son Austin and the two other members of the LEGO Squad team from the Ahwatukee community in Phoenix. The boys’ school did not have a team, so they decided to form their own.

When the boys talked about entering the competition, their parents were reluctant to encourage them, Vigesaa recalled. Besides schoolwork, she said, “My son is busy with a school soccer team, and a club soccer team, and he plays drums in the school band. I told him I didn’t think we had time to do the robotics thing. But the boys talked us into it. They love it and they’ve worked hard and stuck to it.”

Parent Janell Beach has seen the LEGO Heads Team Charlie and LEGO Heads Team Delta from the Richard B. Wilson K-8 School in Tucson show similar determination. Her son Logan is among the team members.

“It’s a huge commitment. They have been working after school until 8 or 10 at night to get ready for this,” Beach said. “But they are not being dragged into it. They want to do it again next year. They said, ‘If it’s the only thing we do outside of school, we want to do the robotics.’“

Expanding in 2015

Next year AZ FLL is expected be even bigger, said Jennifer Velez, a senior K-12 outreach coordinator for the Fulton Schools of Engineering and the Arizona managing partner for the FLL organization.

This year the program expanded participation both in urban areas -- particularly in the Mesa, Chandler, Tolleson and Laveen school districts – and to schools in outlying areas, such as Fort Mohave, Saint Michaels, Fort Defiance, Ganado, Springerville and Elgin.

In 2015, AZ FLL hopes to add 25 teams, more regional tournaments in the Phoenix metropolitan area and in areas between Phoenix and Flagstaff, including Prescott and Sedona. There is also a plan to expand into Navajo County in the northeast part of the state.

In addition, a partnership with the Maricopa County Fair is expected to result in a post-season AZ FLL tournament in the spring.

Velez said AZ FLL is also expecting continued support from its sponsors, Intel Corp. and the Tooker Foundation, as well as continued industry support for local teams and tournaments from Time Warner Cable, General Motors, Raytheon, Avnet and the Science Applications International Corporation.

The first-place Champion’s Award winner from the 2014 tournament, the Local Legends team from the Catalina Foothills Community School in Tucson, will participate in the international competition at the FLL World Festival in St. Louis in April.

Other top award winners may get opportunities to go to the FLL North American Open Championship at LEGOLAND in California or the FLL Razorback Open Championship in Arkansas.