Arizona FIRST LEGO League teams inspired by international competitions
Five standout Arizona FIRST LEGO League (AZ FLL) teams represented their state commendably in recent international competitions designed to encourage young students’ interest in engineering and science.
Each of the five teams were among the 56 squads of elementary and middle school students that qualified for last year’s AZ FLL state championship tournament at Arizona State University.
The annual tournament is organized by ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, which began managing AZ FLL in 2008. Since then, the number of teams involved in the program has almost quadrupled. More than 300 teams (2,000-plus students overall) now take part in the program’s regional competitions throughout the state.
In 2013, the Everyday Heroes team of students from the Mesa Academy for Advanced Studies in Mesa won the Champion’s award at the state tournament. The second-place Champion’s award went to the Pink Pansies team from Mesa and Chandler (students from Mesa Academy, BASIS Mesa, BASIS Chandler and local Montessori schools). Legocy, a community team of students who attend Stapley Junior High School in Mesa, won the third-place Champion’s award.
Everyday Heroes’ success earned the team an invitation to participate in the recent FIRST LEGO League World Festival in St. Louis. A second Arizona team, the Cobratrons from Somerton Middle School in Somerton, also received an invitation from the FIRST organization.
The performances of the Pink Pansies and Legocy teams earned them a trip to this spring’s FIRST LEGO League North American Open Championship tournament at LEGOLAND in Carlsbad, Calif. They we joined there by another accomplished Arizona team, the Battle Bots from Mesa Academy.
FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is an international organization that develops programs to motivate youngsters to pursue opportunities in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and to help teach them basic skills they need to do be successful in those areas.
In FIRST LEGO League competitions, teams are scored on their design, construction and programming of small robots made from LEGO MINDSTORMS robotics kits. The robots must perform specified technical missions. Teams are also evaluated on the creativity of their proposed technical and engineering solutions to specific societal challenges.
The students are judged on their technical and problem-solving skills, and on how well their efforts reflect FIRST LEGO League’s “core values” of teamwork, respect for fellow competitors, friendship and sharing, and valuing the joy of learning and discovery.
At this year’s FIRST LEGO League World Festival, members of the Everyday Heroes and Cobratrons were among more than 12,000 students participating in three days of activities and competitions focusing on robotics and STEM learning,
For some of the eight members of the Cobratrons, the trip to St. Louis was the farthest from Arizona they have traveled. “Their eyes lit up with excitement,” said Mary Ann Potestades, the STEM teacher, science advisor and robotics coach at Somerton Middle School. Meeting and competing with students from around the United States and the world gave them “a new experience that they will not forget, and got them thinking about careers they would like to pursue,” Potestades said.
At the World Festival, Everyday Heroes team member Zach Rolfness met his hero, inventor Dean Kamen, acclaimed inventor the founder of the FIRST organization. Rolfness is a six-year veteran of AZ FLL competitions. “Each year I’ve been inspired by the people around me to learn more, work harder and implement new technology,” he said.
Everyday Heroes’ members were inspired by older students on the more experienced teams competing at the World Festival. Rolfness said he and his teammates are now especially excited about moving up to high school robotics programs.
At the North American Open Championship, the Battle Bots, Pink Pansies and Legocy were among 76 top-performing student teams from the United States, Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Korea.
The seven members of the Battle Bots “completely enjoyed their experience” and faired well “in a very competitive environment,” said coach Jerry McCahan.
The team fell short of claiming top awards but still scored high marks in key categories of the competition. But McCahan said the Battle Bots were inspired by meeting other students and seeing how the best teams prepared for competitions and worked to solve problems. “They got so many great ideas that they will carry with them, and made friendships that will continue to inspire them,” he said.
For the six members of the Pink Pansies, the tournament “reinforced the lesson about the value of working as a team,” said coach John Manaloto.“Every member of the team took part in all the aspects of the competition, including project research and presentation, and robot design, building and programming.”
Many teams assign only a few members to operate the robot during the competitions, “but all six of our members played a crucial role in operating the robot in each and every competition,” Manaloto said.
Competing at the high-level championship was a challenge for the Legocy team, but the students “kept their heads held high,” said coach Kathy Walker. The FIRST LEGO League experience “taught them to think and work under pressure. They think out of the box. They talk about ideas and work as a team to find solutions,” Walker said.
Arizona teams that participate in national or international engineering and science events reflect the value of the Arizona FIRST LEGO League program, said Jennifer Velez, the K-12 outreach senior coordinator for the Fulton Schools of Engineering and manager the state’s LEGO League program as the Arizona operational partner for the FIRST organization.
The events “broaden students’ horizons and expose them to people, places and cultures many of them would never have a chance to experience otherwise,” Velez said. “They find that in spite of differences there is always common ground. And in this case, the common ground is the FIRST LEGO League.”
Joe Kullman, joe.Kullman@asu.edu
Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering