Working with building blocks might not seem like a life-altering or career-building experience, but it can be with the FIRST Lego League. FIRST is an acronym for 'For Inspiration and Recognition in Science and Technology.' Founded by inventor and multi-millionaire Dean Kamen, the organization's goal is to inspire young people to consider scientific and technology careers by creating competition robots. To interest younger kids, FIRST developed a junior league, which builds robots out of Legos. In less than a decade, 60 leagues have sprung up across the United States from the biggest cities to the most isolated areas like Logan County, in West Virginia, where Erika Celeste found two teams of robot builders hard at work."
Legos are interlocking plastic bricks that kids use to build everything from castles to cars, but kids at Logan Middle School use Legos to build robots.
"It's really hard, and complicated, but it's interesting and fun at the same time," says 12-year-old Zack Johnson, who is one of 14 fifth through eighth graders on the school's FIRST teams, who spend an average of two evenings a week working on the Lego robots. As competition time draws closer, they stay late every night. That in itself is a feat because the kids live in several small towns scattered up to 48 kilometers from the school, and must find rides home in the evening.
As each school year begins, FIRST posts the mission for the upcoming competition on the internet. During the event each team's robot must complete a series of actions in a miniature replica of a city experiencing a current scientific or technological problem. This year's FIRST Competition theme was "City Sights."
Zack says the kids had to deal with the challenges of urban planning: providing clean water, proper waste disposal, sustainable energy, and mass transportation for a large city. "The robot's main task is to clean up the city. It has to get the food loops, dump 'em in the market, and then it has to get the building materials to the newly constructed building. You also have to fix the bridge and you also can't hurt the environment," he says.
Using LEGO bricks and other elements such as programmable sensors, motors, and wheels, Logan's two teams design and test their robots. The kids are more concerned with function than form their creations can be tall, short and wide, or in-between with pieces sticking off the sides. It really doesn't matter, as long as the robot can perform its tasks as it maneuvers through the city.
When the robot is finally ready the kids give it a practice run. It earns Points for such things as repairing a bridge, harvesting food from trees, safely cleaning up toxic waste barrels, and providing clean energy by starting the paddles of Lego windmills.
High school student and former team member Robby Queen now works with the younger kids, and says he can see how their thinking has changed as they developed their project. "I've watched some of the 5th graders progress through it. At first it's kind of tough," he says. "Then you step back and look at how they were when it started and how they are now and it's like whoa, they've really progressed."
Sixth grader Mathew Copia says he's progressed to the point that he now considers going into a career that has something to do with computers. "I wasn't very good with creativity," he says. "That wasn't one of my things, but being in robotics kinda showed me some things I could do. Later on I started coming up with my own designs."
That pleases Coach Jack Doty. He says it means the program is doing what it's suppose to. "It's a whole lot more than just fun. They develop computer skills, they develop mechanical engineering skills, carpentry skills, team working skills. How to work together, how brainstorm as a team, how to cooperate," he says.
The kids' learning doesn't stop with the mechanics of building the robots. Participation in the competitions, which are usually held in large cities, introduces them to new cultural experiences such as eating at a Japanese restaurant, and visiting a museum or two. Logan Middle School principal Ernestine Sutherland says, perhaps more importantly, having a FIRST Lego League gives more kids a chance to belong and to shine. "It allows students who aren't athletes to be able to compete in an academic competition. So we try to do that and get them involved as much as possible," she says.
But programs like FIRST don't come cheap. It costs about $5,000 each year to purchase the Lego sensors, building blocks, and computer software. Many urban schools have big name corporate sponsors such as NASA, the Air Force and Black Engineers of America. Ms. Sutherland feels fortunate to have financial support from the Logan County School Board and the Appalachian Education Initiative. But it still isn't quite enough to fund her teams. So she holds fund-raisers to help make up the difference. "It's something our kids need. They need to compete with other students because it's technology," she says.
And compete they have. The Logan teams have won trophies all three years they've been involved with FIRST. At this year's preliminary contest, one of the teams placed first, advancing to the next level of competition. Both teams were also eligible for several different awards including strategy, teamwork, problem solving, spirit, sportsmanship and leadership. They took home the prize for spirit.
While those might not sound like the usual categories, team mentor Robby Queen says that's kind of the point. "The founder, Dean Kamen, would like it to be a program where you're just one big family, not 60 different teams. For instance, you might go to a competition and see the kids, rather than knowing the solution to another team's problem and not giving it to them if a team knows a solution, more than likely they'll give it to them, even though they're competing against each other. It's a family atmosphere, everyone gets along, there's a whole lot of teamwork," he says.
Out of the 60 teams at the regional in Virginia, Logan placed 14th, not bad at all for rural kids without corporate sponsors. While they won't be going on to the nationals, they say it is nice to know they belong to a world-wide organization, with 26,000 kids all working on the same problems in countries from France and Germany, to Singapore.
After all, Coach Doty says, they may be rural but they're still connected. "We still know what's going on in the world," he says. "If they're going to make it in this world, they're not going to be competing with people in Logan County, they're going to be competing with people worldwide."
The kids are taking a well-deserved break now. But they'll be back next year, ready to take on the world again.