Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Gentlemen, Start Your Robots

December 15, 2009
Saturday was the big First Lego League robotics competition that Nicholas and his teammates have been preparing for for the past two months. Approximately 85 teams from up and down California came to compete and add to the excitement and fanfare. Our boys, the Lego Ninja team, would have an opportunity to show their programming skills and their problem-solving abilities, as well as research, presentation, and team work efforts.
We knew we weren't going to place well. We knew going in that our robot was not going to be the shining star of the competition. Our robot was obstinate and resistant to all our programming efforts. It didn't like to run the same way more than twice, so we weren't convinced at all that it was going to perform the way we wanted it to at the competition. After all the efforts of the boys (and honestly, the effort was sporadic throughout the process--the boys were more interested in building cool Lego creations than working with a perpetually erratic robot) we only got it to respond occasionally to one of the ten or so possible missions. It was unpredictable and fickle, just like a 12 or 13 year old boy. Our robot was the perfect match to our little rag-tag group of adolescents.
So we didn't hang all our hopes on the robot. We focused more on what we hoped the boys would get out of the process and out of the experience of being in a place which rewards and celebrates our kids for thinking a little differently, for being the non-traditional kind of kids who aren't necessarily the Student Body Presidents or the Captains of the Football Team. (As our fabulous MC, Retro Bill, said to the kids, "You might be picked on, you might be bullied sometime in your life. When that happens, and someone calls you a nerd because of what you're into, just tell 'em, 'Nerds change the world!'") I love that we have an opportunity to immerse Nicholas in a world where being smart and quirky and different is cool.
In addition to the robot run, the kids also had an on-the-spot teamwork challenge. They walked into the competition room and were given a challenge where they had to come up with a creative solution. They really exceeded my expectations, and I think their own, as well. They had only a minute to plan and four minutes to execute. Without hesitation, they worked together, shared their ideas, and were incredibly focused on the task at hand (no small feat for this group of young men!). They judges told them they were one of only a handful of teams who had even been able to complete the task, and as of that time in the day, had the fastest completion time. Seeing the way they were able to come together and succeed in that little competition room was worth the price of admission (so to speak). Seeing the high-fives and ecstatic yelps they shared coming out of the room just made my day.The final piece of the competition was presenting the research they had worked on in preparation for the big day. It's another way they can show practical applications of creative 'thinking outside the box.' The assignment was pretty straightforward: find a real-world problem (this year's theme dealt with energy efficiency), brainstorm and research potential solutions to the problem, and then decide the best way to present the proposed solution to people or organizations that might be able to effect change. It's a really practical way to illustrate to the kids how the research process that they learn in school can have real-world consequences. It also shows them that it's real people--people like them--who are going to be solving the issues that face our society. But again, the ideas were only a part of the task. The kids had to present the information, calling on their public speaking skills. In preparation, they practiced eye contact, taking turns speaking, projecting their voices, enunciating, and appropriate pacing. Just like in the teamwork challenge, the boys ultimately came up with a presentation they (and we, the parents) could be very proud of.

The Lego Robotics tournament is a long tournament. It's an all-day commitment, and by the time awards were over and we were walking out to the parking lot, we were exhausted. But for everything Nicholas put into preparing for that day, he came out with a lot more--a sense of pride, accomplishment, and most importantly, anticipation (already) for next year's competition.

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