Our First FIRST Year

David Stolz
Team TechnoStorm, Houston, Texasfatherson

Another gift, another toy.  Our son has always been spoiled with having lots of gadgets and toys, building blocks of every kind, telescopes to microscopes, and what now must seem like a continuous science fair lifestyle.  Mom and Dad: guilty.

But the MINDSTORMS® NXT Set under the gift wrap would turn out to be much larger than the box it came in.  By the time of this writing a year and half later, it would consume a whole dining room and a great deal of the family calendar.

The platform of both building and programming led to many examples of problem solving, goal setting, and often healthy frustration.  A few friends joined our son and they learned how to expand upon what they learned in the last session.

FIRST® LEGO® League was seemingly built with them in mind.  Four fifth grade boys: builders and tinkerers with growing logic and math skills that wanted very much to command a machine.  By late summer, the “team” formed and was all-in.  They stared at the Food Factor® mat and missions, waiting on the official release.

The next couple of months went by quick.  As coach/mentor, it seemed not nearly enough time to give them the basics of building, programming, and research.  But we learned to set goals that seemed realistic and to make every meeting count.  It didn’t always work and many setbacks were encountered.  The team learned like in the real world, that 80% of a solution can be implemented with the first 20% of the effort.  It was trying to polish or make that last 20% of the solution reliable and intertwined with other efforts – that could really drag on.  They learned to persevere.

There were no handouts, classroom titles, or master agenda, but thru coaching and direction – the team found themselves learning time management, risk management, strategy, teamwork, research techniques, and communications.

As boyish fifth graders, they struggled greatly in the beginning with “my idea” and “let me do it.”  After many teamwork style exercises, the “me” slowly became the “we.”  A maturity developed where they could debate versus argue (well, sometimes).  Where they could give due credit to others and more humbly accept praise.  Where once silly boys turned a corner towards becoming young men.

An FLL season has it all.  First year teams have to find which parts they can focus on to polish, or learn from the ground up, and likely most important – which parts they leave alone until next year.  If a team gets overwhelmed with every aspect of FLL, the chance to shine or learn from any one area rapidly diminishes.

Tournament was the main goal.  Every team must strive to make their first tournament.  Some may have a lot accomplished, some very little.  We encountered the spectrum, and they were all very glad to have attended and demonstrated their efforts.  Our team did well for a rookie team in performance, but seemed to excel in the judging sessions; an ability to explain some of the “why” along with the “what” led to some great exchanges with the adults.

There will be many chances in a student’s career to apply imagination, creativity, and science to a project.  An FLL season for our team was that plus so many other layers.  Working with other kids, and not just answering to, but talking with adults.  Discovering the differences between thinking you have a great idea, to explaining that idea, to convincing others of that idea, to finally implementing that idea.  Discovering strengths you did not know you had, and having to face weaknesses you always suspected needed more work.

FLL parents, listen in on your child’s next meeting.  Watch and listen past the small talk and sometimes immature interactions.  Listen for the engineer, the problem solver, the creative spark, the leader.  See the future, not for your own child – but for the rest of us.  We’re counting on them.