As engineers we learn that a closed-loop system is almost always better than an open-loop system, but in practice we often fall short of getting the crucial feedback needed to correctly fine tune our final product or presentation.
Is is easy to feel that the FLL requirement to share your project with your community is a burden. Many teams fail to make it a priority and fall short of doing this in time for their qualifying tournament. Unfortunately, this is one of the non-negotiable requirements for receiving a project award, so skipping it dramatically reduces your odds of getting ranked in Project. But this is not my primary argument.
My argument for sharing with the community is that this engagement could be MORE impactful to your team members than the actual competition. This is when they get the undivided attention of professionals, they won't be hurried to fit into a 5 minute window, and they actual are held accountable to the research that they have worked hard all season to complete.
Kids tend to go through the motions of doing a project when they think it will get thrown away, but the knowledge that they have to actually explain their solution to someone who is interested in hearing it and could potentially poke holes into it can be a game changer. So don't skip this part because it's too hard. It might be the most memorable part of your season where the kids have fun sharing their work without the stress of competition day.
Below is my son's team the week before their qualifier event.
It was brought to my attention that some rookie coaches skip the project as a strategy or put all their eggs into the Robot Game basket. Though I have plenty of anecdotal evidence to the contrary, it made me curious about what the numbers reveal about such a strategy, and how I could represent that visually.
The following is a sampling from 5 qualifiers within the same FLL season.
What some coaches don't know because they have missed it in the Challenge guide is::
From the sample in the Venn diagram, it turns out that the numbers support what I already knew.
I will revisit this analysis after a completed season of City Shapers.
I had a blast at the Houston Regional Championship for the FLL Hydrodynamics season.
Where are all the monster trucks? You won't find any here. This is where we separate the truly efficient machines from the toys. Don't let the little girls in pink capes distract you, they are the engineers of the future. See how they roll:
0:06 Start of 1st Robot Run (Filter r3)
0:11 Filter Mission scores with Jada's Claw (M05 - 30 pts)
0:18 Start of 2nd Robot Run (Pump r8)
0:22 Flow attempted with Ava's Lever Turner but does not score (M02)
0:30 Pump Addition scores (M03 - 20 pts)
0:39 Rain Cloud engaged using Laura's Rainmaker and drops rain to score (M04 - 20 pts)
0:57 Start of 3rd Robot Run (HWRPMFU r22)
1:05 Fountain Mission scores (M07 - 20 pts)
1:13 Water Treatment (Toilet) Mission attempted but does not score (M06)
1:25 Faucet Mission scores using Riya's Butt Lever (M18 - 25 pts)
1:33 Broken Pipe retrieved (M01 - 20 pts)
1:49 Start of 4th Robot Run (FlowerFire r15)
1:56 Tripod Placed using Laura's Tripod Holder, but does not score because all 3 feet are not touching the mat. (M09)
2:16 Big Water dropped into Flower Pot
2:18 Big Water engaged into Flower Pot (M13 - 30 pts)
2:24 Crowd starts cheering for the Fire Truck
2:32 Robot gets into place and starts pushing the Fire Truck (M15)
2:36 Ending buzzard sounds
2:39 Fire Truck puts out Fire (no points scored since this is after the buzzard)
2:49 Woman rants about how hard and rare the Fire Truck mission is! (Well the flower mission is pretty rare as well)
The Brainiac Maniacs attempted 11 missions within 4 robot runs. 7 missions scored, and 4 did not. But that was enough to get them 165 points out of a possible 255 which landed them in 8th place on the robot score which is the top 14%. The Champion's award only requires the top 40%, so they were among the 23 teams eligible to receive the award. And they did. This girl scout team of 9 rookie and 1 veteran member will be advancing to to the World Championship in Houston. Go Texans! (and girl power!)
If you can't get enough of them, check them out on YouTube doing a parody to Elton John's "I'm still standing".
here is a subcategory in Robot Design under Mechanical Design called Mechanical Efficiency. This is usually interpreted to mean efficient use of parts. It seems pretty innocuous and self evident on the rubric, but few teams realize how this criteria plays out in the judging room. If they did there wouldn't be so many monster robots being promoted on YouTube. There is nothing wrong with having a big robot. There is nothing wrong with having a small robot. Efficient is "achieving maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense". The adjudication of efficiency is based on how much MORE were you able to accomplish by adding more complexity to your design. A big robot that achieves a LOT more than a little robot can do quite well, but this is a gamble. The reason that this is a risk is because you are taking the risk that another smaller robot would not be able to do just as much as your robot did. So how does this play out on in deliberation? All attributes of your mechanical design are debated until we can compare side-by-side the benefits of each robot design and describe the outcomes produced by each. As long as a big robot is out-performing a little robot, there is no detailed calculation of efficiency, there isn't time for that. But with all things being equal as far as a robot being mechanically designed for reduced program complexity, consistency of execution, number of missions, number of missions per run, reuse of attachments and difficulty of missions chosen, if two teams are comparable across all of these aspects of mechanical design, the smaller robot wins, hands down! (Literally, because deliberation ends). No complex math required.
But let's not stop there. This is quite a profound statement it's worth repeating. Efficient is "achieving maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense". I didn't realize how profound until I spent the last few weeks with my son debating the virtues of core values. As recently as a month ago I was joking with some judges that my 12-year-old son refuses to be on the same team as his 9-year-old brother. I just assumed that Inclusion was a core value battle that I couldn't win. When we attended the Houston Regional Championship, I asked him to videotape the awards ceremony so that I could participate in the high-five line. Afterwards he had a deep desire to win. We have been participating for 3 years now without his team qualifying, so I was puzzled about the change. It turns out that looking through the lens and watching 30 teams jump up for joy with utter elation for an hour was VERY moving to him. He wanted to experience that joy. A few days later, the first sign of change came when he agreed to accept his brother on his team. I was quite proud of this breakthrough and I thought I could check that off my list, but we mustn't forget about Integration as well. A week later my son called me over and started writing on our whiteboard. He really wanted to make sure he understood core values, so he told me he understood why inclusion would be good for his team, but why would he ever need that outside of FLL? This question surprise me since 1) it meant he really wanted to embrace core values, his hand and voice shook a little because he was frustrated he hadn't already mastered this value and 2) I didn't have a quick response that I thought would be convincing. We continued this discussion for a few days where I grasped for answers such as "You don't always get to pick your team, so you should practice making due with what you have". Though I believed this to be a good answer, I was somehow not quite satisfied (this answer encouraged pity which is not what under-valued kids seek). I discovered I have known the answer all along.
Even when you can choose your team, you should STILL practice inclusion. The reason this is the rarest core value in practice is because kids want to win. The reason my son didn't understand why it could possibly be important was he is continuously surrounded by exclusive organization being a sign of success. I was the perpetrator of this problem when I thought I could solve all my team problems by being more selective in my recruiting phase. There is an unspoken negative connotation with both the words inclusion and diversity. Some may perceive that you are weakening the team when you have to take pity on someone that you add to the team for the sake of inclusion. Inclusion is NOT about pity, and the recent discussions about *efficient use of parts* juxtaposed in my conscience with my search for a good answer to my son's questions revealed to me the true answer that I now realize I must share with whoever will listen.
I have judged across all 3 categories of FLL judging and at local, regional and world competitions. It is rare to see teams that embrace inclusion. It's not rare to hear a team in Core Values judging state: "We learned about inclusion". What is rare is teams that will give their weakest members equal time during a presentation, and quietly listen and respect the answer they have to contribute. It's not so rare that I might not sometimes see it more than once, such as at the Houston Regional Championship where I saw it twice, but it's rare enough that I don't always see it at every event I judge. Having witnessed it you might think that I can confirm that teams that practice inclusion sacrifice performance when they practice inclusion. They do not. Most of the teams embracing inclusion do considerable better on average than other teams. How can this be?
Efficient use of parts. A team that embraces inclusion, not out of pity, but out of truly valuing all their team mates, will be some of the most powerful teams because they leave no part or person underutilized.
Back to my son's question: Why should I practice inclusion outside of FLL? Because when we underutilize any member of our community, we are not efficiently using all of our parts. When I say that everyone has value, I am not encouraging us to give everyone an award for a job well done when it was not. What I am advocating is that we actual value every person that comes to us wanting to be a contributor. We should take the time to find that person's talent and give them the opportunity to provide that value to the team and community. Just like the robot game where it is SO easy to be wooed by big robots that we forget that we want efficient use of parts; it is equally tempting to want only the most valuable team members that we don't see the value in all potential team members we already have all around us.
I am not saying this is easy. This is hard. But just like the little girl on Brainiac Maniacs whose eyes lit up when she told me that when she heard the flower and fire missions were the hardest missions, she insisted that she needed to complete them (AND she did); I will honor her sentiment and accept the challenge to take on the hardest FLL core value: Inclusion.
I met Coach Brian 2 years ago at an Animal Allies scrimmage when I noticed that he was giving one of my team members advice on their gyro placement. I found this behavior odd and when I introduced myself, he told me that my kids could go to ev3lessons.com for more details on using the gyro. I was so inspired by this encounter that I volunteered at all of the remaining events that year. He is a 4 year coach that coaches 3 teams at his school. When someone asked him on Saturday which team he coached, I had to add that it's hard to tell because he just walks around helping all the teams. You can find out more about them at robosaders.com.
Now to the team. This is my son Canh, interviewing the BioBots in the pits:
Don't underestimate this team. One of the hardest things to teach is core values, and they are one of the more impressive teams. When Brian mentions that some of his teams just get it, this is one of them. We held two Coopertition events to rebuild 13 competition tables for the league. The 1st one was huge and 80+ kids and parents came out and pitched in. The 2nd did not have as great of a turn out, but that didn't stop the kids on this team from building almost all of the 5 tables we built that day. Though I was surprised that they didn't get the core values award. I am delighted that this is now becoming a tough category to compete in. It means that we are doing the right thing as a community and I was actually elated for Coach Veronica that her team, the Friendly LEGO LifeSavers received that honor on Saturday.
I met Coach Jenny 3 years ago when I coached my first team at Oak Hill Elementary. I like to tell people that she has an enormous amount of patience. She is known in our community not only for her 8+ year involvement with FLL, but she also makes Math Decathalon and Science Fair possible in our school. She coached in years when she didn't have a kid on the team because she wanted the program to be continuous. That is true dedication. When I decided to take my team private my second year, she advised me on the pros and cons of both. For her, the choice was clear because she wanted all kids to have access to the program who might be overlooked for a private team. That was a sacrifice I couldn't make at the time, but she did it year after year. Here is her lovely team being interviewed by my 9-year-old, Canh.
When I ran into her in the stands, she was telling me about her impending retirement from FLL, though she might be able to help occasional and might try to find a new home for her orphanned robots. Well, since her team has qualified to go to the Regional Championship, she will have to delay her plans at least one more month.
I met Coach Natraj at the Martin Qualifier when he was standing in the sidelines with his team, Python Slayers. He had a very solemn but proud look on his face. His team was not doing so well on the playing field, but he wanted them to keep up their spirits, they still had a couple more rounds to go. His team was mostly rookies with a few members who had been coached by Coach Christina Morales whom I just met last month and noticed she shared a similar dedication to the league as myself. Natraj at least felt solace that his team did really well on their Project presentation because he understood it wasn't about winning. I am always looking for a good story to promote the mission of FIRST, so I suggested that my son Binh go and do a Pit Interview with them for us to share. Here is that interview:
It's great to see a talkative group of kids that can still show respect for each other as they promote each other as well as their team. I love the spontaneous kid who started humming the Jeopardy theme song when Binh had a problem coming up with another question.
I was amazed at the questions that Binh, my 12-year-old son, choose to ask this team. These are the same questions that rookie coaches ask that go unanswered. Perhaps he has a future career in journalism (though he should possibly leave the videography to someone else). Make sure you watch the video to hear some great answers to the following questions: (or should I say great questions to the following answers?)
I was delighted to hear at the award ceremony that the Python Slayers took home the 1st place Champions Award. And I was able to capture this treasured moment of them to take home with me so that I could share with you.
There are a lot of beautiful robot run videos on YouTube showing a team's top score being executed flawlessly from their home with some great theme song playing in the background. Those are great for inspiration, but I prefer actual videos from matches because this shows a lot of the issues that a team will face, and is a better teaching tool to get your team prepared.
The Hydrobots scored a very impressive 240 points at their qualifier at Anderson HS. Alas, I did not see their 2nd round run, but I did capture their 3rd round which only scored 30 points. I show it hear because there are more teaching points to make (and I don't have their 240 point run)
0:07 - The match starts. 33 seconds elapse with at least 3 attempts to start the first mission, before the boys relinquish the field. This is sometimes hard to practice, but definitely have a game plan for how many attempts you will try before moving on. The boys appeared both patient and mature in their decision, so it's still an impressive show of maturity for such young participants. Brian mentioned on FLL Connect that they could have also used a master/menu program. This is something judges at the World Festival expect from the Programming Award recipient, not as the reason for getting the award, but just as a sign that they are a contender.
0:40 - The first pair of technicians give up the field to the next pair.
0:45 - Furniture is talking. This is easy to miss, no one called them out on it, but just be careful, this is not allowed. Once a technician becomes furniture, no more human attributes are allowed.
1:05 - Notice the nod that their robot arm carrying the big water does. This probably helps to assure the placement of the arm at the beginning of the run. Great use of automated setup calibration.
1:06 - The second run leaves base
1:11 - Tripod mission is completed
1:16 - 1st Wall reckoning for alignment, you can also hear a team member telling his teammate "it's okay", which is great evidence of supporting your teammates
1:28 - The flower mission is completed
1:32 - Intentional touch penalty so the robot doesn't have to navigate home. We only saw this once before when SynTex Squad did this at LASA. This is very well executed, from the time of the touch penalty to the launch of the next robut run is only 12 seconds.
1:44 - The third run leaves base.
1:48 - Big water released from pump
1:50 - 2nd wall reckoning
1:53 - Pump addition pushed to North Wall
1:55 - Pump addition moved into target, though upon close inspection it doesn't make it all the way in.
1:58 - 3rd wall reckoning
2:03 - Touch penalty, to recovery from stalled robot. This transition took them 17 seconds and it's a very impressive use of teamwork, both team members work very effectively and don't get into each other's way.
2:20 - The fourth run leaves base.
2:25 - Touch penalty, which may not be impressive in itself, but they identified within 5 seconds from leaving base that something was wrong and because they were still transporting their payload were able to take it back for a retry.
2:30 - Relaunch of forth run.
2:35 - 4th wall reckoning for alignment.
2:38 - Time is called by the announcer (Kristi)
Great to see such a young yet mature team. They had great mastery of my two favorite forms of mechanical automation: starter blocks and wall reckoning. I didn't see any line following or line squaring which in my opinion are very inefficient for the amount of advantage it can buy you. They do have light sensors, but it looks like they use it to gauge where they are on the field, but not for alignment.
Their robot never moves very quickly, which is probably on purpose to assure the alignment. This is usually the case with high scoring teams, slow and deliberate especially after an alignment has been made appears to produce higher scores. The only time I have seen a very fast robot was last year's team from China. I don't recall their rank in the regular game, but during their encore game the day of the awards ceremony they were runner up.
This was not a high scoring run, they did have touch penalities, but I am not sure which one of their missions didn't score. Marlon mentioned that they didn't score the flower in the 2nd round run, so there potential score is higher than 240. They are a team to watch at Regionals. Typically 5-10% of teams score 2x above the median score for the game, but this is miles above that threshold. See FLL Scores for the latest statistics.
I am a very generous mother. I have given my son the gift of failure 3 years in a row. But I can't really take all the credit, the first 2 years were unintentional. There are plenty of stories about winning and books on how to have a winning robot, but this is the story no one else is telling and I am proud to have experience it so that I can share it with you now.
Year One. I was VERY naive my first year coaching. I dropped the ball on getting my son registered for the school robotics club so by the time I found out, the only way he could be included was for me to be a lead coach so another team could be formed. How hard could this be? I love Legos, my degree is in Electrical Engineering, I started programming when I was 11-years-old AND I had 5 years of experience teaching Computer Science at ACC. I was more prepared than anyone I know to take on this challenge.
What I didn't realize is that 9-year-old children get distracted within 30 seconds of you lecturing to them, they think they know more than you and will ignore everything you tell them to prove it, and they feel no need to hide it from you when they are bored (with a few exceptions). Out of utter despair a month before the competition, I started inviting children for one-on-one coaching in hopes that someone could get points on the board (surely this teamwork think was a pipe dream) and I committed the ultimate sin. I did some of the work (okay, I did a lot of the work, but I did let them do some of it).
Well, I don't have to tell you how that turned out, but I will. The children that I *coached* on how the robot worked made absolutely no mention of the design features during the robot design interview, and the children that ran chaotic through my meetings were very well-spoken, could answer the judges questions directly and even rescued the project presentation when one of the kids forgot his lines (though it's possible he never knew them). But mostly they were really good at just winging it which wasn't enough to make much of an impression on the judges.
I never back down from a challenge. After I went through my 5 stages of grief, I emerged more determined then ever that I would fix everything that went wrong the first year.
Year Two, First Reboot. This time I started a private club because I wanted to make sure I didn't have any equipment issues (from 5 year laptops that had no WIFI, bluetooth or USB ports) and that I could remove children that weren't there to learn robotics. I had good intentions, and I knew that I could not help do any of their robot design or missions for them, which I am proud to say is probably my only achievement that year. But my ultimate sin is that I still wanted to win and once again started getting too involved in the Project presentation and in the process probably alienated some parents (most of them don't speak to me anymore). I realized my error at our last rehearsal before the competition when the boys weren't very focused and a parent directed them to "show that you did the work" and her son said "but we didn't." I knew all was lost at that very moment. Perhaps their disinterest wasn't that they all had ADHD, but that they didn't feel any ownership of something they didn't work very hard for. And they couldn't feel gratitude for the help that they didn't really request.
Okay, I learned my lesson, I can't do any of the robot work AND I can't do any of the project work. How can I possibly get it wrong again. I was going to be ready for year three.
Year Three, Second Reboot. This time I would insist that they did all of their robot work and project work, but I had a lot of energy and determination to spare, so I busied myself planning workshops and scrimmages. I had already judged at multiple events at the end of my second season to gather as much knowledge as possible so that I could *advise* my team. I was going to coach the core values team that knew intimately what Coopertition meant. But as I hosted each event, my teams ran and hid in their rooms to play. I had no pictures of them helping to build the 15 competition tables for the league, because they didn't (though their parents did help and for that I am very grateful). I started the season with no expectations of winning that year, but had at least hoped that they would have lots to talk about in their Core Values interview. They didn't. Because they didn't do any of the Coopertition work, they didn't find any of it worth mentioning.
A week before our qualifier after my son had spent most of his meetings goofing off because as he puts it: "I thought you wanted me to have fun. That's a core value right?" and all their missions were broken because they had made so many changes without retesting, I finally told him to go ahead and program as many missions as he could alone since we didn't figure out how to do it as a team. We were unlikely to qualify, but wanted to see what he could do if there was no pressure to perform. He finished 110 points worth of missions 3 days later.
As we had our last meeting the night before the qualifier I heard him say to his teammates, "Why weren't we programming since Week 1?". We went to our qualifier and scored 65 points out of the possible 110 that he had prepared and did not qualify as I expected. The difference is that unlike previous years when he felt no ownership of the work and hated losing and didn't want to participate again, this time he came away from the event inspired (it helped that the Immortals showed them their project and also asked them about his project). His eyes had been opened. He presented his own work, but realized he could have done better and couldn't wait to prove to himself that he could. He asked me when he would age out and was excited that he has 3 more tries to get to World.
Trying to put a positive spin on it, I told him he was very close, had he been able to execute on his planned missions he could have qualified. He replied, "I don't want to qualify on the robot score alone, it has to be the whole picture. We need to meet next Friday and start preparing for next season now!". We will at least wait until after the holiday.
There are only 3 categories of judging. I am totally ready for year 4. Rebooting now...
Stay tuned for the rest of the story, we have 3 more years to write it.
Last Saturday I referee'd for the first time. I am usually in the judging room, but they were short on refs, so I thought it might be fun. I am always nervous about making the wrong call or making a kid cry, but none of that happened to my relief.
In the judging room I only see the perspective of what the kids intended, but not the actual outcome, so it's eye opening to be able to see what scored and what did not. I am going to align what I saw on the game table with how I assess a team in the judging room. Hopefully this will allow you to correlate each robot design principle with outcomes on the table.
The most popular missions ordered in their likelihood of success:
FLL Coach since 2015