By Shelly Browne
Take several homeschooled boys, aged 10–14, add a pile of LEGO bricks, a robot, and a challenge to solve, and you get a LEGO robotics team! Our organization, ARCHERS for the Lord, Inc. (The Association of Relaxed Christian Home Educators), decided to participate this past year. During our first year of participation in FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) LEGO robotics, we built the game set in the basement of one of our leaders and used her kitchen for filming a video about the research project.
The FIRST LEGO robotics program emphasizes teamwork, innovation, and courteous professionalism in their worldwide competitions. The program kicks off in August with the announcement of the theme for the year. Past themes have included bone cancer and alternative energy. This year’s team was “The Food Factor,” and all projects were to focus on food safety. Each team works together to build a robot that moves and lifts objects with handheld robot controllers. There is a series of competitions, although a team doesn’t have to be part of the actual competition process. In fact, there are even ways to participate with just your own family; however, we found that the learning process the boys experienced as part of a group was well worth the additional organizational work on the part of the parents.
One Wednesday afternoon, the boys met around a homemade plywood table, and each chose a piece of the setup to build: rat traps, cold storage trailers, cows, a giant sink to wash germs in, and towers holding bacteria and viruses for the LEGO robot to contain. Their challenge was to remove food-borne illness and contaminants from farm, trucking, and fishing industries and to get the food safely to the table within two and a half minutes, using the robot they would build.
Within an hour of searching for just the right LEGO pieces and helping each other with build trip switches on the towers, the four boys became coworkers. I quickly realized that one of the dads, Eric Richardson, could be point man for the group. Other parents stayed to watch, but we found that the hardest job was not helping when we saw what we thought “should” be done.
One of the boys, Ethan Morris, excelled at creative solutions to building problems. He became the person in charge of actually building the robot and designing attachments to snag items ranging from a piece of pizza to a pretend “rat.” Parker Richardson became the programmer, telling the robot what to do and adjusting its movements by degrees in drag-and-drop blocks. Parker Browne and Tyler Jackson ran the robot and adjusted the field setup whenever “Destructo”—as they named their robot—went off course and plowed into the field animals.
Within the general theme of Food Safety, each team was instructed to develop a specific focus. At the beginning, our team started developing a program to educate food service personnel about the possibility of severe food allergies among their customers. This project was suggested by a boy who has personal experience with food allergies. However, just two weeks before the competition, we learned that our project was not exactly what the judges were looking for and we had to switch gears at the last moment.
We were told that our project was supposed to focus on a single food; we were told to research related safety issues and then design an innovative way to handle them. The boys had to learn flexibility and how to handle frustration. They quickly decided to focus on raspberries and came up with a 3-D model of a refrigerator system to mist botanical oils into a crisper in order to easily clean them.
As could be expected, at the actual regional competition our robot had a few problems. However, we did very well for first-time competitors, finishing just behind some experienced teams. Even more important, the boys were given a special award for “inspirational work.”
During the competition, the boys explained both their original project and the new one and were allowed to present both of them. At some point, the competition suddenly turned into a “dance-off,” with the host team playing music and kids from all the teams dancing in the cafeteria to techno-bop. It was an enjoyable and worthwhile experience for both the boys and their parents.
If you would like to expose your kids to this team-building, problem-solving program, I encourage you to seek out other local teams or go on the Internet and read about teams from this year. Just start by Googling “LEGO FIRST Robotics.” Selection of this year’s FLL (or FIRST LEGO League) Global Innovation Award is in process at this writing. The winning team’s invention will be patented and explored for potential use by the food industry.
Through afternoons of frustration with a robot that didn’t work or a program that didn’t run right, to other afternoons when the boys just wanted to go run in the woods, the boys worked through several issues that the parents found highly interesting. Most of the boys are either the only child in the family or are separated so far in age from siblings that they are being homeschooled as if they were an only child. Learning to share the responsibilities, to share the robot, and to take turns as leaders and followers were all difficult things for them to learn.
There were occasional hurt feelings, and my own son tried to quit several times, but we stuck together and finished what we started, and the end results were well worth it! Next fall, we hope to start our first high school-level program. Part of the experience will be fundraising for the robot. Some high school groups are very well funded and actually have trailers of tools and machining equipment that travel with them to competitions and events. We will be starting small but hope that one day, through cooperation and persistence, we, too, will make it to the World Festival competition!
Shelly Browne has been homeschooling herself and her three children for eighteen years. In addition to serving on the Board of Directors for ARCHERS for the Lord, Inc., she recently started “The Relaxed Home Schoolers’ Place in Kennesaw, Georgia. She has a B.A. in English literature and runs a cleaning franchise in her spare time.
Copyright 2012, used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.