FORT HUACHUCA, Ariz. -- Joyce Clark Middle School was the epicenter of excitement as 15 teams of students, 9 -- 14, came together for the inaugural First Lego® League regional competition in Sierra Vista Nov. 19.
This was the first opportunity for most students to participate in the robotics challenge event that originally started in 1998.
Keaton Lemelin, daughter of Staff Sgt. Raymond and Rebecca Lemelin, initially experienced FLL during her school days at Fort Bragg, S.C. Now attending Gen. Myer Elementary School on Fort Huachuca, Keaton is a member of the recently founded Rawbots Robotic Club.
"They've been practicing one to two hours a day, up to four days a week," said her mother, Rebecca.
"I get to help with the programming," Keaton added.
Winners from the Sierra Vista regional contest were selected to move forward to the next event in Tucson Dec. 3. The top three teams were the PDS Mindstorm Team from Pueblo Del Sol Elementary School, Dumbledore's Army Home School Team, and the Spare Parts independent team.
Craig Wittman, a director with Raytheon and the FLL Tucson tournament coordinator, attended both the Friday evening volunteer orientation and Saturday activities at the middle school.
"Everything is running much smoother than would be expected for the first year," said Wittman, as scores of students, coaches, parents and volunteers milled about in preparation for the first round. With 10 years of active experience in the FLL arena, Wittman's participation and assistance was described as "especially helpful" by Allen Bravenec, the FLL Sierra Vista regional tournament coordinator and a senior project manager for SAIC.
Every September, FLL releases a challenge, based on a real-world scientific topic. Each challenge has three parts: the Robot Game, the Project and the FLL Core Values, according to the FLL website,
Teams of up to 10 children, with one adult coach, participate in the challenge by programming an autonomous robot to score points on a themed playing field. This is known as the Robot Game. They also develop a solution to a problem they have identified during the "project" portion. All participation is guided by the FLL Core Values. Teams may then choose to attend an official tournament, hosted by one of the FLL's operational partners.
Past challenges have been based on topics such as nanotechnology, climate, quality of life for the handicapped population and transportation. By designing FLL challenges around such topics, participants are exposed to potential career paths within a chosen challenge topic, in addition to solidifying the science, technology, engineering and math principles that naturally come from participating in a robotics program. Team members also learn life and employment skills which should benefit them no matter which career path they choose.
The Armed Forces Communications Electronics Association and Cox Communications provided necessary financial backing to purchase the initial Lego® robot kits, to fund teacher and coach stipends, and to host this year's regional competition in Sierra Vista. According to Larry Bingaman, treasurer of the Southern Arizona AFCEA Chapter, funds have already been budgeted by AFCEA to enable new FLL teams to form in the surrounding communities. Additional sponsoring organizations are sought to sustain the already formed FLL teams so the program can continue to grow.
Danielle Root, assistant superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction for Cochise County Schools, is considering plans to integrate the newly acquired Lego® robotics into area classrooms when they're not being used by the teams.
"This program can help 'glue' the schools together and build relationships across communities. It's more than computer programming. The Lego® robotics challenge emphasizes creation and teamwork," said Root.
Daniel Guilmette, Computer Information Systems instructor at Cochise College and a volunteer FLL judge, shared a complementing academic perspective stating, "The Lego® program motivates younger children to stay interested in science, engineering and math -- areas where we need to focus their education."
More than 100 area volunteers assembled to assist with the event on Saturday. "We've had an absolutely great response," stated Bingaman, who served as volunteer coordinator.
"We are thankful for each one of you … and [we] have a job for each one of you," said Bravenec in his opening comments.
The volunteers' many contributions were evident throughout the day. Yellow- and brown-shirted volunteers dispersed across the school campus and assisted participating students while managing the operation's many moving pieces.
2nd Lt. Jeremiah Johnson, a student attending the Military Intelligence Basic Officer Leadership Course on Fort Huachuca, was quick to express his enjoyment in being a volunteer room judge. "The kids were so expressive about their projects. They were proud of their accomplishments and eager to share."
"We couldn't be more excited about today's event," said Richard Besselman, president of the Southern Arizona Chapter of AFCEA, a volunteer FLL judge. "We've come a long way in a short amount of time. Next year we hope to see the number of teams double."