Life doesn't come with instructions. That's the underlying theme of First Lego League competition - participants have to find their own ways to piece together solutions to missions.
So when four Chesapeake and Virginia Beach middle school kids - team Brainstormz - started prepping for First Lego League competition in August, they eschewed the instructions for a pair of basic Lego EV3 robots, to create Bosstronic and Lieutenant Bubbles.
Working out of BrickHeadZ in Chesapeake, Brainstormz used more than 1,000 Lego bricks to design and build their pair of robots. The first-year team's goal was simple - have fun and be competitive in the First Lego League.
The Brainstormz robot performed deftly enough at the First Lego League Tidewater Region competition to earn a spot in the recent state championship held at James Madison University. There, Brainstormz finished 18th out of 48 teams.
"That was the most intense sporting event I've been to," said Cameron Lochrie, 13, of Great Bridge. "Our color sensor wasn't working so we had to sort that out."
In competition, teams can have up to 10 members, between 9 and 14 years old, to build and program a robot that can complete a series of tasks called missions. For example, one requires the robot to pick up a rubber ball, carry it to a point on the competition field, and successfully throw the ball into what looks like a soccer goal built of Lego bricks. Scoring is based on time and how efficiently the missions are completed.
What makes this impressive is all the problem solving was left up to Cameron and her three teammates, Joshua Thomas, 12, Sammy Cutler, 10, and Ellie Sherman, 12.
"We're asking them open-ended questions to guide them so the kids can find out their solutions on their own," said Vanessa Siedlecki, owner of BrickheadZ and assistant coach of Brainstormz. "We challenge them, asking, 'Why is this not working?' "
Developing solutions, though, required a lot of trial and error and consideration of different ideas posed by all the team members, said Brainstormz coach Jonny Smithers.
"It makes kids think," Smithers said. "Everyone brings something to the table."
At the state championship, there were twelve robot judging tables running on four-minute intervals, half a dozen city buses to shuttle people to lunch, and hundreds of crazy, electric, light-up hats, according to Scott Lochrie, Cameron's father.
"The most impressive thing though, aside from the hats, was a thousand plus kids practicing the First Lego League core values," he said.
Lochrie described what he calls a "Lego moment" during the competition.
"Coach Jonny and I were watching the team ahead of us in line, and they were struggling with their robot. It turned at the wrong time, missed its target, got stuck, and had to be picked up and put back on base by hand.
" 'No points for that run,' I thought, 'We can beat it!' I caught Coach Jonny's eye and knew he was thinking the same thing.
"We turned around to rally our team but found them sitting on the floor in their lab coats. With them were the kids from the team behind us. They were all simply sharing the finer points of robot design and the latest Mine Craft discoveries, completely unaware of the drama unfolding out on the robot table.
"Coach Johnny and I looked at each other, turned back to the robot table, then graciously, professionally and sincerely cheered for the struggling team. Our kids seemed to know all along that what we discover is more important than what we win, and together, we set out to have fun the rest of the day," he said.
An interesting aspect of Brainstormz, Smithers added, is the members hadn't worked together, or even known each other before August. Cameron attends Great Bridge Middle School but now considers Ellie, who attends Hugo Owens Middle School, as one of her best friends. Sammy attends Kemps Landing/Old Donation School in Virginia Beach, and Joshua is homeschooled in Chesapeake.
Yet they were able to coalesce into a team using everyone's strengths. Cameron cited the process of naming the team as a great example of an early team building exercise. They spent two hours hashing out different names, eventually settling on Brainstormz - a monicker that combined various other ideas team members liked.
Ultimately, the entire experience left Cameron broadening her concept of what she'd like to do in the future.
"Before, I had ideas about being a geneticist," Cameron said. "But being an engineer sounds fun."
Ben Werner, [log in to unmask]