The bell rang at 9am on Saturday November 21st, marking the start of the 2015 FIRST LEGO League (FLL) Qualifier tournament at Newton North High School. Twenty-eight teams of 4th– 8th graders were present for the big day, all with high hopes of moving on to the state competition in December.

FLL is a program that introduces young people to a fun and exciting way to learn, and to apply, science and technology. Every year, in late summer, FLL releases a Challenge Topic. Past topics have included Nanotechnology, Climate, and Transportation. This year’s topic – Trash.

An FLL Challenge has three parts:

  1. The Robot Game: Teams program an autonomous robot to score points on a themed playing field.
  2. The Project: Teams research the Challenge Topic, identify a specific problem and come up with a solution.
  3. FLL Core Values: The spirit of teamwork, friendly competition and sharing.

Participants in FLL learn how to work as a team, to look at problems creatively, and to believe in their ability to make a difference. All of these qualities were on display at Newton North this past Saturday.

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The Polka Bots: Anne K., Izzy L. Becca S. and Finn H.

Since September, these teams have been designing their robots, and researching the Challenge Topic. As part of their research, my daughter’s team, the Polka Bots, attended the Green Needham Collaborative event, “Too Good To Waste.” The team decided to tackle food waste after learning that 40% of the food produced in the U.S. annually gets wasted. As a solution, they came up with the idea to create customized QR codes, readable by smart phones. Each code on a food product would tell the consumer how to store, prep and compost that particular food, as a way to reduce waste. In preparation for the tournament, the Polka Bots shared this solution with the Green Needham Collaborative Steering Committee and received helpful feedback.

With smiles and enthusiasm, they presented their solution again on Saturday, but this time in front of the FLL Project Judges. Later they participated in Technical Judging – where they explained their robot design, and Core Values Judging – where they were given an on-the-spot challenge to work out together. In addition, they competed in five robot matches throughout the day, while family members cheered them on from the bleachers. During each match, the robots had 2.5 minutes to complete as many “missions” as they could. This can be the most stressful part of the day because the robots don’t always do what they are supposed to do.

By all measures, Saturday’s qualifier was a big success. The planners did a fabulous job organizing the event and keeping things running smoothly. The atmosphere was competitive, but not at the expense of being friendly and fun. At the end of the day, while the judges tallied up the scores, all the participants gathered on the gym floor to dance, sing and laugh together. The upbeat mood permeated the room.

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First Lego League Tournament

Once the dancing stopped, the judges took the stage for the award ceremony. Only 6 of the 28 teams present would move on to the state tournament.

Two Needham teams were at this event: the Polka Bots, who are aging out after this year; and Creationary, a 6th grade team in their 2nd year in FLL. Both teams did well in the Robot Game. The Polka Bots had the high score of the day and Creationary was at number 5, but the top robot scorers don’t always make it to the states. Teams need to score high on Core Values as well.

After the first few awards were given out, it was time for the Champions Award-Second Place. The Champions Awards recognize the two teams that score the highest on all three elements of the program. As soon as the judge started describing the winning team, we knew it was the Polka Bots. The excitement grew with each passing second. The team members struggled to keep from jumping out of their seats before their name was called. When the judge said “the Polka Bots” they jumped up excitedly and hurried over to the judges to accept the award. Their parents, including my husband and I, watched with pride. We knew then that the Polka Bots would be going to the states. But this was not the true source of our pride. Over the past four years, our kids learned to work as a team, to respect others’ ideas and sort out differences of opinion. They were thoughtful and creative when faced with challenges, and kept it together when things didn’t go their way. They shared ideas, mentored younger FLL teams, and best of all, took the FLL Core Values to heart. How great is that!

Congratulations to the Polka Bots, and to Creationary, who also displayed the Core Values throughout the day and was invited to the state tournament. Best of luck to the other Needham teams who will be competing in qualifiers over the next few weeks. Hope to see you all at the states on December 19th.

Two Needham “First Lego” Teams Go to State Championships
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