FIRST Lego League is perfect for kids who love robotics, Lego, friendly competition

What do you get when you take the competitiveness of athletic competition and cross it with Lego robots? You get the FIRST Lego League.

The FIRST Lego League (FLL) is one of four robotics competition leagues put on by FIRST. FIRST—For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology—is an organization that allows kids and teenagers to get actual hands-on experience with building robots, and in putting their creations to the test in competition.

A team prepares for competition at one of the practice tables.

The FLL is specifically for kids ages 9 to 14 (9 to 16 outside the US, Canada, and Mexico): Teams of kids come together to build a robot out of Lego Mindstorms kits that can successfully complete various missions on an obstacle course of sorts known as the Challenge Field. Missions include knocking down Lego bowling pins, moving a miniature chair into place, and balancing atop a platform, to name a few.

The more missions a team's robot can complete, the better, and the more points that team earns. A team that successfully completes the entire course can earn over 700 points, but the top team at the event I attended scored around 435 points.

The FLL Challenge Field. The robot starts in the box in the lower right, which is known as the Base.

I attended the Los Angeles Region Championship Tournament: The winner of this event got to go on to the FLL World Festival (which takes place April 24-27 in St. Louis) and the runner-up will proceed to the FLL North American Open (May 17-19 at Legoland California near San Diego). As you might imagine, the stakes were fairly high at this particular event—or as high as they can be when you're building Lego robots, that is.

The competition format itself is fairly straightforward: Each team gets four tries to score as many points as they can—one practice run and three rounds that count. In FLL, only your highest score gets counted; the other two and the practice round get thrown out.

Members of the Robots in Black team guide their bot during the competition.
A robot makes its way around the Challenge Field during warmups.

The robots operate autonomously on the course for the most part: The kids program the robot to move around the course along a particular path, so once the robot leaves its Base (the starting point on the Challenge Field table), the robot is on its own. Much like a NASCAR team, each FLL team has a "pit" area where team members can meet and fine-tune their skills in between rounds.

The teams should have their robots ready to go before the competition starts (though teams might make some adjustments during practice), so most of the warmups involve figuring out how to position the robot at the starting point so that it hits its mark, so to speak, while completing a mission. If you don't position the robot properly at its starting point, it may not be able to successfully complete its mission. It all reminded me of how you target the pigs in Angry Birds, only in real life and using Lego bots.

This robot shoots hoops. Cool!

FLL is unique for a lot of reasons, one of which is the fact that the kids build and program the robots themselves. Each team has a coach and adult mentors to offer guidance and help keep the team members focused, but the kids do all the heavy lifting.

FIRST after FLL

At this particular event, representatives from FIRST Robotics Competition (for teens ages 14 to 18) were on-hand to show off some of the bots that take part in the more advanced levels of the competition.

One basketball-shooting robot uses a Microsoft Kinect to identify squares located on a backboard to pinpoint the basketball hoop's location. The Kinect also allowed the robot to figure out how far it was from the basket, since the Kinect's camera can sense depth as well. The robot wasn't actively shooting baskets at the event, but its creators did demonstrate its tracking capabilities.

Going beyond robotics

The robotics competition itself if is only part of the story, though. In addition to how well their robots completes their missions, the teams are also judged on the design of their robot, their adherence to FIRST's Core Values (more on that later), and their team's Project.

A wheelchair lift project.

In the Project component, the teams must identify a real-world problem and devise a solution for it, then present that solution to a judging panel. This year's theme was Senior Solutions, and the teams had to come up with an innovative idea for a device that would help senior citizens maintain their independence. Ideas presented ranged from a pill-dispensing robot to a wheelchair lift.

A major component of FLL are its Core Values, which emphasize teamwork, friendly competition, discovery, creativity, and, well, fun—these are Lego robots, after all! A lot of youth sports programs claim to emphasize similar values, but FLL makes it more of a priority. In fact, each team–along with their coaches, mentors, and parents—are judged in part based on their adherence to these principles.

Teams take a lap—and exchange high-fives!—after the competition.
We have a winner! The Bee's Knees pose for photos after winning the Los Angeles Regional Tournament. They'll move on to the FLL World Festival.

It's worth a look

Prior to this, I'd never been to a FIRST competition before, and I left-the all-day event exhausted but impressed by what I saw. What stood out to me was the sheer enthusiasm that permeated the entire competition. The kids were into it. The coaches were into it. The judges were into it!

FLL competitions are free and open to the public, so if you love Lego and robots, and want to see some really creative kids in action, you owe it to yourself to check out FLL. It might just make you wish you were a kid again.

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