"My robot brings all the nerds to the yard"
By: Karen Gorecki
As I sat on the floor amongst a sea of highly sugared up, and robot frenzied children; the tension in the cavernous high school gym continued to build. It was game day, and the award announcements were about to begin. “This is it,” I said to myself, the day we all have been working toward for the past 11 weeks, 36 hours and 12 minutes. However, it is not about winning; it is about all of this right here, the huge group of kids, parents, coaches, and volunteers all working together to discover new things, learn about each other, and unite for the betterment of our future leaders. Sounds pretty epic doesn’t it? Well, that is because it is.
The ‘FIRST LEGO League’ (FLL) Wisconsin Qualifying Tournament was this past Saturday, hosted by Waukesha South High School and C.O.R.E. Robotics. Milwaukee Montessori School’s involvement in this nationally recognized robotics league, FLL, is so vital because of its closely tied roots to our very own aspirations and overall mission. The FLL experience is an annual challenge to engage children in a problem-solving process that is currently practiced in industry. Following a complicated rubric, the students get the experience to research, strategize, design, build, and test using a programmable robot to complete missions and a project to solve a problem they have identified. These missions and projects incorporate actual life scenarios and professions. The teams in turn, learn critical life skills such as respect for others, appreciation of different perspectives, cooperation, perseverance, and time management.
All of this hard work is then put to the test after many weeks of preparation in the style of a huge science fair. Tables are set up, teams from all around Wisconsin, who participate in this regional competition begin to show up at the crack of dawn with their parents. Of course, they are all wrestling with big awkward boxes and bags, cradling their creations, sporting their custom screened T-Shirts, and carrying their aptly named robots. Milwaukee Montessori School arrived with our seasoned nine-year team, the Elemental Robots, and an unprecedented second team this year, our rookies the Automatrons. We unfurled our professional and, in the case of the Automatrons, gargantuan display boards, laid out information sheets, computers, and of course… candy. It has become a tradition for all the participants on this day to inundate liberally their already fired up counterparts with endless bowls of candy treats. Like a robotics trick or treat, teammates leap around to all the different projects snatching up their favorite treats and staying for the rather in-depth explanations of each fresh idea.
Teams go through a series of three presentations in the morning that are timed and judged in cluttered high school classrooms. This is when the teams dazzle the judges with their excellent robot skills, show off their newfound acting abilities in their performance, or “skit,” explaining in a catchy way all the new information they have learned about solving an actual global problem (landfills), collectively marketing their project. In the team work judging round, the students were given a task to demonstrate how well they work together. After they had been given directions, only once, they huddled around a small desk of supplies and began to create a container made out of 8 straws and a little bit of masking tape that can capture a golf ball dropped from shoulder height. Oh yes, and they must complete the task in under 5 minutes. Control fiends tend to explode under this kind of pressure. The judges are keeping a close eye on any steam that might indicate an eruption is close at hand. Time is called, and the team is asked questions that, at times, would even be hard for grown adults to answer. They have to think on their feet and incorporate all their core values into the answers, all the while “having fun.” Talk about helping shape a well-rounded citizen! We walk out of the room, and the herds of coaches, students, their parents and even grandparents is gingerly escorted through the halls like a choreographed ballet until all presentations are completed. At this point, the children get a break to eat lunch, aka more candy plus a dash of carbs.
The teams zoom around for what seems like an eternity, testing their robots’ programs, sharing this year’s project with interested spectators, and perhaps making friends with other like-minded S.T.E.M. devotees until the announcement is made to queue up for robot rounds. Four regulation sized, light and camera outfitted tables are manned with black and white striped referees, waiting in a darkened gym for cleverly built Lego robots to show off what they can do. As we wait to start, the D.J. (of course there’s a D.J.!) spins some classic crowd pleasers guaranteed to get everyone dancing… even the most stubborn begin to chicken dance like they were born to chicken dance! Not only does this relax the nerves of potential robot malfunctions but it really is a great opportunity to show comradery and have some plain ‘ole fun!
The MC of the day is a tall young man, most likely a high school student and what you would call a “perfect high-energy crowd motivator,” with perhaps a future in radio or mass communication. The music fades, the MC’s voice crescendos, “let’s get ready to LEGOOOOO!” The crowd goes wild. Stopwatches are set for two minutes and 30 seconds, two robot gurus from each team are positioned with their fingers on the start buttons, and the MC starts… “in 3-2-1-LEGOOOOO!” The bots take off! They are barreling down the table at a whopping .2 miles per hour to execute a mission. Every revolution of the tires, every Karate chop of the arms or hooks, every touch or light sensor is all programmed by the students on the Lego EV3 Mindstorm computer program utilizing “move-blocks”. The programming is very time-consuming, finicky work, and often is still being tweaked on the day of the competition. Points are given and taken away during these robot rounds. Did Tron, the Automatron’s robot complete a mission? Did it return to base? Did someone pick it up too soon and get a penalty? The ref’s tally it up and take the time to explain the points or penalties to the children. More judges with clip boards are peppered around these tables looking for kids having a great time, fellow teammates who are cheering them on, as well as some who are just not yet equipped with the ability to persevere in the face of potential failure.
After yet another lengthy span of time, it is 4:00, (remember we started at the crack of dawn?) sugar highs begin to plummet, eyes are getting glossy, and judges are swept away behind closed doors feverishly nominating teams for all their efforts. It is time to pack up and hope for the best. The teams and coaches are paraded back into the gym and seated on the glossy floor. Anticipations and emotions are running high for those announcements to begin. Absolutely everyone who was a cog in this FLL competition machine was thanked with rounds of applause. Ms. Jaime Wszelaki, Director of the Milwaukee Montessori School’s robotics program, was beaming. Her endless dedication to the students and their accomplishments had not gone unrecognized. Elemental Robots had nominated her once again for being an outstanding coach, writing the words “Our team is a butterfly, and Ms. Wszelaki is our wings. Without her, we could not fly.” As if that was not enough, the judges began to announce...
“For excellence in research and Project Design, team 938 Elemental Robots! Team 15620 Automatrons!” HOT DOG! Both of our teams just got nominated! I felt like I was at the Emmy’s. Then they said it, “the winner of the Project Award is, TEAM 938 Elemental Robots!” Parents in the stands and our teams on the floor went nuts! High-fives seemed infinite, and the nominations continued to pour in like a shower of accomplishments and recognition-er. Rinse, repeat.
Elemental Robots: Champions Award (huge) this award is for the team that fully embodies the FLL experience and embraced the Core Values.
Automatrons: Teamwork Award, recognizing inspiration and extraordinary enthusiasm.
Automatrons: Gracious Professionalism Award, recognizing high-quality work, mutual respect and value for each other and the community.
Automatrons: Research Award, recognizing innovative solutions and comprehensive research.
Automatrons: Judges Award, (huge) recognizes unique qualities, effort, and overall dynamic performance. This team stands out as “special”.
Each nomination was thrilling, and so fulfilling to see the children’s faces light up. As I sat there, my face sore from smiling, I wondered how well the teams who were never called were holding up. I looked closely at that sea of people around me, and almost everyone seemed to be expressing the same feeling on their faces, ‘Oh my gosh, is it over yet?’ All kidding aside, the FLL regional competition and the entire journey leading up to this day was enormously successful for everyone far and wide. Whether we won or lost, we gained! We gained a greater appreciation of science, technology, values, cooperation, hard work, determination, perseverance, and a much greater appreciation for each other, and that is what it is all about. I had a blast working closely this year with all the robotics students and my co-worker extraordinaire, Jaime Wszelaki, without whom this unforgettable experience would be a reality.