Getting involved in FIRST Lego League has been a life-changing experience. My first year as coach of Lego Bistro has taught me a lot about myself and given me opportunities for growth that I wouldn't have had otherwise. I'd like to tell you a little about myself, how I got recruited, and what the 2011 season was like for me.
As a stay home mom with six children, ages 4 to 14, I was honestly not looking for another hobby. I have a degree in elementary education, but no experience in robotics or programming . . . and I had no interest in complicating life. Just keeping up was enough for me. In the spring of 2011, my 10-year-old son brought home a flyer he found about Lego robotics. He was interested, and I knew instantly that this would be a great fit for him. The problem was I felt like the meetings were too far away and I wouldn't be able to support him. I did, however, find a Lego robotics camp through 4H that allowed him to get a taste of what it was about. As expected, my son LOVED the camp! After a few hours he was hooked. When I asked Marcelle, the 4H robotics program director, if there were any FLL teams closer to our home, she said, "No, but . . . " and asked if I would be interested in coaching. My husband and family were supportive, so when Marcelle assured me that no programming knowledge was needed and that the team was somewhat of a self-guided discovery experience for the kids, I agreed, but with butterflies in my stomach.
Gathering kids for the team happened as quickly as my son and I told friends about it--nearly everyone was interested! Having 4H support meant the world to me as I began my team. 4H helped register the team, bought a season challenge kit, built the game board for us, and made sure I got the mentoring I needed through coaches' training and contacts with other coaches. Beyond that, we needed a robot kit and computers to get started. I contacted Utah FLL for a rookie grant (after encouragement from another 4H coach) and received a deluxe robot kit purchased by a law firm (Antczak Polich Law) who believes in the FLL program and what it does for the kids involved. 4H also loaned us a couple of kits to allow more of the kids a hands-on experience. Computers were more difficult to come by, but they did come. One family had an older laptop they donated, but this (in addition to my home computer) was simply not enough, especially since the team had grown to ten members--the maximum--almost overnight! One outgoing team member found a local computer repair shop that was happy give our team a laptop. I connected with another family who was willing to donate computers through our local Freecycle.org network. These and other similar connections were gradually meeting our team's needs.
The details of running the team were overwhelming at first, but I soon realized that I was sitting on a goldmine of experience and connections, in the form of the parents. When I needed a mentor in the food industry for the team, I went to the parents for connections. When I wanted the team to have teamwork challenge experiences, I found a parent who loved that sort of thing--he came to our meetings every week or so for a 30 minute activity and discussion. Public speaking, robot building advice, programming tutorials and other topics were taught by the parents. I discovered that once a sponsor or mentor got involved they became personally vested in the team. Our mentor from Stauffer's Foods forwarded us updated FDA bulletins as he found them because he thought it might help the team in their research. Val Antczak, our robot kit sponsor, checked in on us after the regional competition and invited the team to his office to discuss the progress of the team's project. These connections provided unparalleled experiences for the kids on the team.
From the beginning my only goal as a coach was to have a successful year. To me, "success" was defined by the kids. At one of the first team meetings I had the team sit around my kitchen table and one by one each team member suggested what the team's goals should be. Every time we met, we reviewed our goals together and set mini-goals to help us focus for the week ahead. This helped keep the kids engaged with a purpose. I also found that when I was overwhelmed with the needs of the team it was because I wasn't letting the kids lead enough. Midway through the season I turned it over to the kids by assigning each team member a role. I suddenly had a "Programming Leader", "Strategy Analyst", "Project Manager", "Communication Specialist", "Core Values Leader", "Building Engineer Leader", "Quality Control Manager", etc. The kids loved having an assignment, and I loved having someone else in charge of these things. The kids didn't have all the answers, of course, but they did know how to get them and if I pointed them toward the right resources they always came back with a solution for the team.
Lego Bistro had a remarkably successful year as a rookie team. The kids learned a lot about robot building and programming, but even more important were the life skills they learned. Without exception, I saw each team member grow in their capacity for responsibility, hard work, getting along with others, teamwork, leadership, drive, focus, presentation skills, confidence, and many other qualities. This made me feel like the time and effort I spent coaching was well worth the sacrifice. Additionally, I saw similar growth in myself and discovered a passion for working with these kids. Through the team's effort, and the support they garnered in the community, their project idea took first place in regional and state competitions, and made it to the top ten innovative solutions worldwide in the FLL Global Innovation Award competition. The kids enjoyed being guests on "Good Things Utah" and have been invited to local city council meetings. They have been written about by several news agencies, and have lots of mentors who are all watching their success--because they know they had a hand in it! I know this success was largely a result of allowing the kids to shine in their roles and our willingness to reach out and connect with mentors and resources that made the difference. I had such a great time as coach that I hope to do this again every year that I can, and you can bet that we will follow this pattern again--rookie or not, having the team set their goals, letting the kids lead, and reaching out are keys to success!
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Robotics competitions are not limited to 9-13 year olds. Visit the links above to find out how children of all ages can get involved.