As regular reader will know I do love coding, electronics and robotics for kids; and so it’s come as a surprise to me to find an activity which I’m not entirely comfortable with: First Lego League (FLL).
FLL is huge. A couple of years ago there were over 18,000 teams entered Worldwide. The basic idea is that teams are given two-and-a-half minutes to complete a series of themed tasks using a robot. Each task attracts a certain number of points. Then there’s a presentation on the kids’ solution to a problem: This year FLL’s theme is learning, so the kids present on their idea for a better way of teaching something. On its face that’s all good stuff and I want to love it.
My problem with it is driven by its incredibly restrictive rules. There are very tight instructions and rules about each of the activities; and this year’s theme as led to some quite finicky activities which lend themselves to focusing on the rules. More importantly, though, the main rule set lays out clearly what you are allowed to use: Only original LEGO pieces in pristine condition. The thing I love about robotics is getting the kids to solve real-world problems with a bit of clever thinking and engineering. While they can still do that in FLL, it’s working in a straight-jacket. You can only use certain materials and you spend as much time with the lawyers debating the rules as you do building. It’s what I imagine it must be like to be a junior technician working in a huge engineering company.
What I want is free-wheeling solutions which use duct tape and some stuff you found lying around in the kitchen: And that is simply not FLL. To be fair FLL doesn’t pretend to be anything it isn’t, but this is my first year involved with it and I hoped for something less competitive and more creative.
The other part of the building restrictions is fair enough, you can only use a certain number of motors and sensors. The aim of all this, obviously, is to provide a level playing field for the competition. But the introduction of the EV3 means there’s not really a level playing field. Many schools are still running NXT, because it’s a significant investment to get enough kits for a class or two, and the NXT parts are simply not as good as the EV3 parts – the EV3 has better sensors for example.
Ultimately, my issues with FLL probably come down to style. If you’re the sort of person who neatly files LEGO bricks by type and then follows the building instructions, you’ll love it. If you’re the type that dumps everything on the floor and tries to come up with something novel, the rules will feel like constraining walls and you’ll be yearning to point out what a great solution would be available if only you were allowed to use some duct tape a bamboo skewer and a bit of wire.
My favourite scene in the movie Apollo 11 is when a team in NASA is presented with all the stuff available on the marooned spacecraft and told they have a few hours to cobble together a solution. Imagine the kids being presented with a box of parts and told they have two hours to create a solution to a problem: That’s the robotics competition I really want my kids to be involved in.