Learning by Legos
By Cherise Ryan
First thing in the morning, each team is given a schedule, detailed down to the minute.
Robots race each other in two-and-a-half-minute rounds all day, trying to complete as many missions as possible. Announcers give play-by-plays of the matches, and referees watch carefully for rule violations.
But these robots are not your normal robots—they are made of Legos.
Homeschool team Legos in Paradise took first place at the 2006 First Lego League Robot Challenge.
Held in Grandville, Michigan, the annual First Lego League Robot Challenge is a highly competitive regional contest for youth ages 9-14. In 2006, Legos in Paradise, a team of nine homeschooled boys from the Greater Grand Rapids area, took first place out of 20 teams.
“We had an all-around well-adjusted team that got along well with each other and with the other teams,” says Dan Hartley, a homeschool dad who coaches Legos in Paradise with his wife, Tami. “First Lego League isn’t just about points, but highly emphasizes gracious professionalism . . . It’s a way of doing things that encourages high-quality work, emphasizes the value of others, and respects individuals and the community.”
First Lego League (FLL) is an international program that encourages children to solve real-world engineering challenges, develop important life skills, and learn to make positive contributions to society through designing, building, and programming Lego robots.
Legos in Paradise also won the Innovative Robot Design Award at the regional contest. Team member Alex Hartley, Dan and Tami’s 13-year-old son, explains some of the purposes of the team’s robot: “We had to build a working robot out of Legos, and program it to do specific missions and challenges that had to do with nanotechnology, like separating a nanotip, or manipulating atoms.”
“We used two light sensors, two touch sensors, two rotation sensors, three motors, and the RCX (the robot brain),” adds Calvin Hartley, Dan and Tami’s 10-year-old son. “We programmed it to do missions on the challenge table (where the robots race to complete different challenges) without a remote control.”
Dan and Tami Hartley became involved in First Lego League in 2004 when Alex was invited to join one of the teams. “We quickly found out that FLL isn’t as much about Legos as it is about science, research, and engineering,” says Dan. The following year, Dan and Tami decided to coach the team.
“We went in with the attitude of ‘let’s just have fun and not worry about the competition so much,’ ” says Dan. “We had one other family join us, had a good time, and enjoyed the year. The third year (2006), we really put in some effort and invited many kids to join, and ended up with nine boys on the team.”
“We met on different days of the week and at different times, but everyone was able and willing to adjust,” says Tami. “As homeschoolers, we can combine the extracurricular with the curricular. First Lego League has to do with science and engineering and is very educational. We made it a part of our studies.”
Nine-year-old team member Josh Davison says he thinks “homeschooling helped me because I could spend more time working with the team, and I have a lot of time to build with Legos.”
Alex Hartley adds, “I liked being on a homeschool team because we could meet in the middle of the day and have longer meetings, and I knew some of the other kids already from some of the other homeschool stuff that I do . . . I spend a lot of time with math and reading. Both those things are used a lot in First Lego League.”
Nine boys, often with their younger siblings, all working on Legos together “often got very loud and rowdy!” recalls Tami. “But when they buckle down and concentrate on the work, it is very satisfying to see some of the ideas and solutions they come up with. I definitely want to continue coaching, maybe even beyond my kids’ years in FLL.”
After winning at the regional level, Legos in Paradise went on to the state final competition held in Flint, Michigan, on December 16, 2006. They came in 9th for the Robot Game, a major division of the competition in which robots race each other to complete missions, and they came in 19th overall out of 48 teams.
“Our team was tired, and we did not spend much time preparing for the state level,” says Tami. “It showed on tournament day, but I think they did remarkable considering the lack of preparation and since competing at the state level was new to all of us.”
“The biggest challenge now is to keep up the momentum for the next season, encouraging the boys to do better than last year because other teams know what to expect from us, and it could be easy for us to be overconfident,” she says. Dan Hartley adds, “We will need to work extra on teamwork and gracious professionalism, as those are the backbone of First Lego League. These are attributes that will carry through in life to everything that any of us pursues.”
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