Arizona robotics competition unleashes young students' creative drive

Thursday, January 8, 2015
by Joe Kullman

A high-spirited group of more than 500 young students brought an exciting atmosphere. Anticipation and intensity were evident at the recent Arizona FIRST LEGO League (AZ FLL) state championship tournament.

Sixty-two teams of students ages 8 to 14 gathered at Arizona State University’s Tempe campus. The robotics competition was designed to spark their interest and boost their basic skills. It involved science, technology, engineering and math.

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

Record-breaking year

Some teams that took top awards at a series of regional competitions. This led them to earn their way to the state tournament. They were among a record 335 teams to participate in AZ FLL activities in the past year. That’s four times the number of teams involved in 2008.

There were 176 school teams. This included 11 Girl Scouts troops teams and six neighborhood teams It also included five formed through the Si Se Puede (“Yes, It’s Possible”) Foundation. Also, there were nine teams of home-schooled students, and 17 others consisting of family members and friends. This totaled 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 choose opportunities in STEM fields. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Emphasis on teamwork and discovery

FLL activities take place 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 tasks to earn points.

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

The 2014 challenge was “FLL World Class: Learning Unleashed.” Teams had to come up with innovative science-, engineering- and technology-based solutions. The goal was 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. They are also judged and on following FLL’s “core values.” These include teamwork and “gracious professionalism.” This can be seen 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. Sapio is a physics teacher at Coconino High School in Flagstaff. She has been the master of ceremonies at the state tournament for the past seven years. “It teaches them how to do research. It also teaches 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.”

Sapio is working to earn a master’s degree in science teaching from Northern Arizona University. As part of that, Sapio developed “FLL in a Nut Shell.” It is a curriculum that provides coaches of FLL teams a startup guide and education standards. That way, 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 agreed with Sapio’s viewpoint. They see the value of the AZ FLL experience for students.

Mike Chesko is the coach of the Master Builders team. It is made up of of seven boys from various schools in Chandler and Gilbert. Chesko 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 is coach of Welding Lizards. It includes six boys who attend Oakwood Elementary School in Peoria. Scheidemandel said team members are “learning how to work to together and having fun.” But they are 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. He followed in the footsteps of older brother Joseph, who now serves as an FLL tournament referee.

Commitment to the goal

Coach Mark Pond works with the Knight-N-Galz. They are five girls, including his daughter Hannah, from the Mesa Academy for Advanced Studies. They have learned teamwork and time management. They have also learned 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 works with the 10 boys on the Granite Tesseractors team. In geometry, a tesseract is a four-dimensional analog of the cube. They are from Granite Mountain Middle School in Prescott. The team includes her son Ethan. The Granite Tesseractors have been learning “how to deal with frustration, and to overcome setbacks.”

They worked together to prepare 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. They 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. They are from the Anthem community in the Phoenix area. Coach Rhonda Lucas works with 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. That 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.  His 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. They are 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 weren’t sure about it, Vigesaa recalled. Besides schoolwork, she said, “My son is busy with a school soccer team, and a club soccer team. He also 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 worked with the LEGO Heads Team Charlie and LEGO Heads Team Delta. They are from the Richard B. Wilson K-8 School in Tucson. They have shown 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. Jennifer Velez is a senior K-12 outreach coordinator for the Fulton Schools of Engineering. She is also the Arizona managing partner for the FLL organization.

This year the program expanded participation. It grew in urban areas, like in the Mesa, Chandler, Tolleson and Laveen school districts. It also grew 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. It also hopes to have more regional tournaments in the Phoenix metropolitan area. It welcomes teams 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, there will be a partnership with the Maricopa County Fair. This 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. These include Intel Corp. and the Tooker Foundation. There is also 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 was the Local Legends team. They are from the Catalina Foothills Community School in Tucson. They 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.