Wisconsin FIRST LEGO League State Finals

by Jonathan Gennick

Bright and early on Sunday the 14th, 48 teams consisting of some 400+ middle-school
kids, along with a small army of adult and high-school aged volunteers, converged
on the Appleton-East High School
for Wisconsin's
state finals. Together with my son Jeff, and eager to
learn a bit about what the FIRST LEGO League is all about, I drove down to watch.
I wasn't disappointed. It was an exciting, and extremely well-organized event.

At Appleton, I somewhat randomly chose
to tag along with a team from Middleton,
called The Blue Wizards as they went through three presentations
that are part of the judging process that comes ahead of the actual robotics
competition. I say "somewhat randomly," because I was intrigued by
the large, cardboard apparatus they were using to demonstrate their design for
a Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) that would rove around on Mars, collect rock, water,
and soil samples, and then return to space. I just had to see what that was
all about.

The Blue Wizards Team Photo

The Blue Wizards

Top left-to-right: Nick Neylon, Eric Parton, Brian Roscoe, Zachary

Bottom left-to-right: Luke Jorgensen, Austin Durham, Will Brosius,
Brian Dvorsky, Charlie Dong

FIRST LEGO League is an international
partnership between an organization known as FIRST
and the LEGO Company. FIRST, an acronym for
"For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology," is an
organization founded by the inventor of the Segway,
Dean Kamen, for the purpose of motivating young people to consider careers in
science, technology, and engineering. In the FIRST LEGO League, teams of young
people aged 9-14 use LEGO
as a vehicle for learning about robotics. Each year the kids
are given a set of robotics challenges, or problems to solve. Using a standardized
kit, they build and program robots to solve each problem. This year's theme
was Mars exploration, and problems involved launching samples from a canister
launcher, clearing dust from a solar panel, and freeing a rover stuck in a sand
dune. Kids work together with adult mentors and coaches to design and program
solutions to these challenges. Then they meet in friendly competition to demonstrate
their work.

The Galactic Knights

The Galactic Knights making a few, last-minute,
trial runs

I said that FIRST LEGO League was a vehicle for learning about robotics, but
that's an oversimplification. In fact, it's backwards! My observation is that
robotics are used as a vehicle for imparting important life skills such as teamwork,
conflict resolution, problem-solving, the ability to think logically. Kids make
friends, experience the joy of working together for a common goal, and the competition,
which is really against themselves rather than each other, is a chance to show
off what they've learned. Amongst all this, some will no doubt be turned on
to science and technology, but that doesn't really matter, because the other
lessons are so much more important.

The Blue Wizards, as did each of the other teams in the tournament, appeared
before three sets of judges to give three presentations:

  • A presentation about their ability to work together as a team, how they
    divided the work, how they resolved conflicts, how they went about recruiting
    new members, and so forth.

  • A science presentation on some aspect of Mars exploration. This is where
    that cardboard device came into play.

  • A presentation on the design decisions and tradeoffs made while designing
    and programming their robot to solve the challenges in the competition.

These presentations are more like question-and-answer sessions, and sometimes
the judges ask some tough questions. Just why did the Blue Wizards choose to
power their MAV using a small, nuclear reactor? I'll leave you to ponder that
question, but suffice it to say that the team had a good answer to give the

Defending the Design

Nick and Eric(?) defending some Blue Wizard
Design Decisions

And what about that cardboard apparatus? You can see it below, fully populated
by the various "devices". Each team member represented a different
device such as the nuclear reactor, the Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR)
device, and so forth. Each member spoke in turn about what he represented, how
such a device would function, and the device's purpose on a Mars Ascent Vehicle.
It was a very engaging presentation, all-in-all much better than many corporate,
Powerpoint presentations that I've seen. Sometimes low-tech is best.

The Mars Ascent Vehicle

The Blue Wizards Demonstrating their Mars Ascent
Vehicle Design

The presentations come in the morning, and they're followed in the afternoon
by three rounds in which each team fields its robot to perform the tasks specified
for the competition. These robotics rounds are the most publicly visible part
of the tournament, and it's great fun to watch as each robot performs its assigned
tasks. Points are given for each successfully performed task.

The Space Crusaders team robot

Created by the Space Crusaders!

I was very impressed by the tournament, and by the kids I met and talked with.
Dean Kamen may be well-known as the inventor of the Segway, but I think his
organization's LEGO League idea will have a far greater and longer-lasting impact.
My son Jeff and I had a great time at the tournament. My thanks to that former
member of the Muk-Town Klash Nebula team who gave my son (who is days
away from being eight ) one of those team pendants on a beaded necklace. He
wore that all day long. You really made his day, more than you probably realize.


2003-12-16 18:29:11
Great, but where are the girls?

Thanks Jonathan for introducing us to FIRST LEGO and what sounds like a great group of kids.

I couldn't help noticing, however, that it appears that the entire Blue Wizards team is made up of boys. Perhaps the groups comes from an all-boys school, but I doubt it.

Do you know if the FIRST LEGO project is taking any special steps to try and introduce more girls to the project? Did you see a significant number of girls at the event?

I think we would all like to see more girls becoming excited with and involved in science and technology. As the father of a young girl myself, I am really hoping that my daughter will not come to view these types of activities as something "just for boys".

Jonathan Gennick
2003-12-16 18:58:59
Great, but where are the girls?
There were girls at the event. I'm sorry, I didn't really pay attention to how many. The Space Crusaders team had at least one girl on it, and also one female mentor who appeared to be high-school age. I'm struggling to remember, but I do tend to think the distribution was skewed towards boys, and I don't really know whether FIRST LEGO is doing anything special to recruit girls.
Jonathan Gennick
2003-12-16 19:05:59
Not just for schools
By the way, I don't believe the Blue Wizards are directly linked to any school. If you're intersted, and have the time to be a coach, and you know enough interested kids, you can form a team. Check out the following URL for details:


Look especially at the "Team Profile" heading.

2003-12-17 05:26:21
Great, but where are the girls?
I noticed the comment about the lack of girls in the article. Despite there not being any specific target towards recruiting females, there are quite a large number of female team members, and in fact there were a number of all female teams this year. There is definitely a skewed distribution between males and females, but it is smaller than one might think. FIRST also doesn't specifically recruit different teams, the schools post, local groups, and coaches do the recruiting, but it is probably a good idea that when any advertising or media goes out that any photos include females (because we should be making sure they are included and encouraged). Thanks for the feedback - but I would recommend that anyone (male or female) that is interested, to come check out a tournament - it is very impressive ! It should also be noted that many of the regional events (in Wisconsin at least) are organized and run by females, which sure helps to encourage females once they're at the event.
2003-12-17 06:33:00
Great, but where are the girls?
I was a coach for one of the four Oak Creek teams. The distribution for those teams were:

Team 23
5 girls
1 boy

Team 25
1 girl
8 boys

Team 220
2 Girls
6 Boys

Team 294
2 Girls
3 Boys

While maybe not a 50-50 mix, there are definetly many girls involved in Lego League ...

2003-12-17 06:58:21
Great, but where are the girls?
Thanks for this post, and also thanks to the coach from Oak Creek for the detailed demographics. I am very encouraged,

I will definitely plan on checking out a tournament, and on bringing my daughter. Thanks again Jonathan for bringing this to our attention.


2003-12-17 08:31:10
Ages of FIRST Lego League Participants
While this article mentions that FIRST Lego League is a competition for kids in middle school, there are a large number of elementary school kids who participate. The 'official' age range is 9 to 14. I coached a team this made up of 2nd thru 4th graders, ages seven to eleven. While some people are skeptical that kids so young can grasp the technical concepts needed to participate, they truly can and do! As the article mentions, the teamwork and problem-solving aspects of the program are just as important - or maybe more important - than the science and technology parts.

I just wanted to let you know that this wonderful program is also appropriate for elementary kids.

Another coach from Oak Creek

2003-12-17 21:16:00
Great, but where are the girls?
Rough estimate is 80% boys and 20% girls.