By Jonathan Baca, Copy Editor | Photo by Jonathan Baca
In a crowded, noisy high school gym, the sounds of arena music, cheering fans, and a play-by-play announcer bounced around the walls as a timer ticked down on the scoreboard. But this was not a sporting event; it was a battle of scientific wits.
On Saturday, February 1 at Albuquerque Academy, the New Mexico FIRST LEGO League Tournament was held, where 57 teams of grade-schoolers used custom made robots built with LEGO parts to complete a series of challenges, all while learning that science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) can be a lot of fun.
Program Coordinator for the School of Health, Wellness and Public Safety at CNM, Amanda Lopez has been volunteering with FLL for three years as the Junior FLL Coordinator, and she said that watching kids discover how much fun they can have with science has kept her coming back for more.
“Seeing the kids do the work, building the robots and having a good time really drew me to continue volunteering with them. I just kind of got hooked, it was really fun,” Lopez said.
Each year, FLL, which is part of the international organization FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), creates a theme for the tournament. A series of challenges is created around that theme, and in the fall FLL sends each team a series of instructions on how to build the game board they will be competing on.
Each team also gets a kit that includes all the basic building pieces for their robots, made from the LEGO Mindstorms series.
Teams have several months to build a custom robot that can be programmed to perform specific tasks, and they do a research project that goes along with the year’s theme.
This year’s theme was Natural Disasters, and on the day of the tournament, each team had to use their robots to achieve certain goals on the game board.
Certain tasks are harder to achieve and count for more points, so teams need to decide on different strategies and different robot designs to try to earn as many points as they can over three two-minute rounds.
“The big thing about it is that the kids do the work. They are doing the research, they build the models, and adults are around to help them, but they are the ones doing the investigating,” Lopez said.
Morgan said that the creators of the tournament realized that kids have plenty of heroes in sports, music and movies, but little to no role models in the world of science and engineering.
So the creators designed the event as a sort of “sport for the mind,” with a raucous, exciting atmosphere, announcers, team t-shirts and high energy, she said.
Morgan said her biggest thrill is seeing kids getting excited about the world of science and technology, when these students realize that it is not as hard as it seems, and that it can be really fun.
“There is a great deal of joy that I get when I see the kid’s faces light up. They get it, and they realize that it’s not all nerd type stuff and old white guys with pocket protectors. We want to break that stereotype completely,” Morgan said.
She said that robotics is really only the hook to get the kids excited; the real value and learning comes from the themes, which all relate to the world of STEM.
Many kids who compete end up coming back as volunteers and team coaches, and FLL tries to keep them involved in a meaningful and creative way.
All of the workers at the events are volunteers, and Lopez said she encourages CNM students to get involved, or if they are parents, to have their kids compete.
“Especially for any of the youth that we work with, we want them to have a meaningful volunteer experience,” Lopez said.
Morgan said that involvement with FLL can be a big advantage for students looking for scholarships, and that sponsors like Sandia Labs and Northrop Grumman see the program as a kind of early training program for future technicians and engineers.
No matter how a person is involved, Lopez said that everyone has fun and gets a lot of satisfaction out of the experience.
For more information, or to volunteer with New Mexico FIRST LEGO League, visit nmfll.org.