> Dave Offen, Agnes Kaiser, & Cody Underwood
> December 11
> Hands-on Science and Engineering Motivates Local Youth --
> LEGO Robotics at Crittenden Middle School in Mountain View
> Every fall, around 6000 teams of youngsters from around the US compete
> in the FIRST LEGO League (FLL) competition.  This competition is similar to
> the more widely publicized FIRST high school robotics competition, but the
> kids are younger (9-14 years old), the robots and playing fields are smaller,
> and everything is constructed from LEGOs.  Dave, Agnes, and Cody will
> describe the challenges and the excitement experienced by the Crittenden
> "Pantherbots" team, explaining how the competition works, showing photos
> of the competition, demonstrating the robot that the team constructed for
> this year's challenge, and answering questions about their experiences.
> Dave Offen is a software consultant, LEGO Robotics Camp Instructor for the
> San Jose Recreation Department, and co-coach of the Crittenden LEGO Robotics
> team. Agnes Kaiser is a 7th / 8th grade Math teacher at Crittenden Middle School
> and co-coach of the Crittenden LEGO Robotics team. Cody Underwood is an 8th
> grade student at Crittenden and is just completing his second season as a
> member of the Crittenden LEGO Robotics team.

Dave Offen began his talk by explaining that the FLL competition happens every school year during the fall. The cost of entry each year is about $200, and for that the group gets a large pile of LEGOs that include everything for that year's challenge. In addition, the team made a one-time purchase of two LEGO Mindstorms robotics kits, costing about $300 each. He showed us some of the components that "aren't like the LEGOs we grew up with." Included among them were a computer control system about the size of a calculator, motor driven wheels, sensors that could be used to detect walls, and a programming environment the kids can use on a PC to program the robot they build.

Then Cody Underwood demonstrated how to program a robot to move around on a table. He selected components from a palette in the left hand column of the display. Then he arranged them into a flowchart like series on the center of the screen. Selecting a component made its options appear at the bottom of the screen, so he could fill in parameters there. Before long Cody had programmed the robot to "go forward until it senses a wall, then turn right and repeat." There was a round of applause when the program worked right the first time.

Then Offen explained the challenge. This year's theme was alternative energy, so they had to make a robot that would retrieve barrels of oil from an oil rig, put a hydro power generator in the water, build a dam without flooding any houses, recycle a pickup truck, pick a crop, and many other tasks. The team had to make the robot do as many of these tasks as possible in a 2 - 1/2 minute window with judges watching. The kids had to do the whole design project themselves with no help from anybody.

The team participated in a >regional qualifying tournament this past weekend at UC Berkeley. Sixteen teams competed, and the Crittenden Pantherbots were honored to receive the Teamwork Award. Dave showed us a video of the team's run. The robot would do a task from the list. Then someone would change the attachments and send it out for the next task. The kids took turns, and moved quickly from one task to the next. It looked well rehearsed. When the bell rang they had gotten 230 of a possible 400 points. They are now waiting to hear if they made the cut to go on to the next level.

During Q&A the following came up:

This challenge is designed for kids 8 to 14 years old. Any community group can field a team, it doesn't have to be a school. Dave does it because it's a lot of fun.

Before turning the kids loose on this year's challenge, Dave and the two other coaches worked with them to explain what last year's team had to do, teaching them the problem solving skills they needed to do it.

Dave showed us the challenge field. It was a vinyl stage about four feet wide and eight feet long with geographical features like roads, houses, and a river printed on it. The challenge elements (oil rig, truck, bridge, etc.) were all built from LEGOs. There was a single square where contestants were allowed to touch the robots, so every program had to begin and end with the robot there.

To learn more about FIRST LEGO League go to:


The Museum of American Heritage in Palo Alto will have a great LEGOs
display from now through January 6th. To find out more about that, visit: