Dozens of students from area school districts could be found playing with LEGOs Saturday in the gymnasium at Ballston Spa Middle School. But the word “playing” doesn’t describe what the students were doing as well as the word “engineering.”
The Ballston Spa School District was hosting the Hudson Valley FIRST LEGO League qualifying tournament. The league, known as FLL, is a national program designed to get elementary and middle school students interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. (FIRST is an acronym for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.)
At the most basic level, FLL participants form teams to build robots using LEGOS and servomechanisms that they use to compete against each other in a variety of challenges designed and judged by organizers.
But according to Diane Irwin, the K-12th grade science coordinator for Ballston Spa, the program is so much more than that.
“In addition to the critical thinking and design process, the students also develop leadership, confidence and communication,” said Irwin.
The 9- to 14-year-olds participating in Saturday’s event were split up among 12 FLL teams from Ballston Spa schools, Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake’s O’Rourke Middle School, Broadalbin-Perth, Shenendehowa Middle School, St. Mary’s School in Ballston Spa and the William H. Barton Intermediate School in Queensbury.
Three qualifying teams from the day would advance for an opportunity to compete in the Hudson Valley FLL championship tournament at Dutchess County Community College in February, said Irwin.
The day featured 12 different challenges, or “missions,” as they’re called in FLL. Teams, which can be made up of as many as 10 students, get to choose what missions they’ll compete in, which vary by difficulty and point value.
Missions include using the team’s robot to move objects on a LEGO table into a certain area, crossing a barrier in a certain way, or tripping a mechanism that creates a chain reaction. The more difficult the task, the more points a team is awarded by a judge for successfully completing it.
In addition to competing in the missions, students have to explain to judges the design and build process of their robot, why they made certain decisions, and how they worked together to achieve their results.
The event is also open to parents who want to watch their children and the teams compete.
Irwin said she’s seen parents who watch their children during these events and exclaim, “Wow, I didn’t know my child knew how to do that,” she said.
“So the students really are doing new things and building new skills.”
One student said her team competed in FLL “so we can be smarter,” while another slightly older student took a more calculated approach.
“I wanted to do it so I could get into [Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute] and [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology],” said Liam Wroblewski.
Kate Wheeler, a junior at Ballston Spa High School, participated in FLL for years and now helps out at league events. She said she also participated in the program to connect with her sister, who was also involved, but the experience stoked an interest in her for engineering.
“I think FLL is more about how to prepare for the future,” said Wheeler, noting the program teaches young students how to communicate with their peers, work in teams and problem-solve. “There’s so much more to this program than building robots, it’s really invaluable.”
Dave Torrey, an engineer and design judge, said FLL instructs participants from a young age how to navigate group settings and accomplish tasks.
“They’re learning how to express their ideas, talk to adults that aren’t their parents, and they’re learning how to build their ideas off each other,” he said. “Regardless of what they do, they’re going to be better off because of this.”
Nataliya Guthrie and Isabelle Sikoryak, both 10, were teammates on “Motors in Action.”
Guthrie said her favorite part about FLL was learning to problem-solve. “We worked well together,” she said. “If a lot of people disagreed, we took a vote.”
Sikoryak said her favorite part of participating in FLL was working on a team and learning how to program their robot using a computer.
“Last year was my first year [in FLL],” she said. “So this year was a little easier.”