In October and November of this year, Racksburg invested in spinning up several First Lego League (FLL) teams in the New River Valley. Working with the non-profit New River Robotics and local FTC group the Tuxedo Pandas, we spun up two FLL teams at Blacksburg Middle School, two at Christiansburg Middle School and two home school group teams.

One of these home school groups, Rackspace was personally involved with. I stepped in as "Coach Tweeks" and helped start one of the home school teams, the "Fire Breathing Rubber Duckies"— mainly because my own 11yr old daughter was one of the prospective team members. The FBRDs (as we became known as) ended up being comprised of nine 9-11yr old home school kids from here in Blacksburg.

The FLL Big Picture:
FIRST Lego League is the robotics competition for middle schoolers, run by the FIRST organization, started by Segway inventor Dean Kamen. FIRST stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, and is one of the leading world wide STEM organizations.

FIRST Lego League's primary goal is to offer "a powerful program that engages children in playful and meaningful learning while helping them discover the fun in science and technology through the FIRST LEGO League experience." [1]

The FLL program is set up to equip a small team of 9-11 and 12-14 year olds to build their technical and team cooperative skills. They do this through an autonomous robot competition, a topical research project as well as a CORE values component that focuses on Gracious Professionalism and having fun.

The competitive season is between 2-3 months long, is organized around one to two dozen (or more) team meetings where robotic and project strategies are formed, mechanical and programming problems defined and the kids overcome countless challenges and have a tone of fun, learning as we go. These all build up to a regional competition with a dozen or so teams all competing against each other, with the winners moving up to state and nationals. At the weekly workshop meetings, the parents are asked to encourage and provide direction, but not do any of the work or micromanage what the kids do.

While the kids are drawn into FLL with the simple fun goal of programming robots.. the real lessons learned are much more broad and impactful. As some of the parents (who are themselves involved in this informal after school activity) commented, "I was really surprised that the kids are learning many diverse and valuable life lessons through FLL. I mean you have the obvious lessons of how to work effectively on a team, communication, etc... but you also have some very deep life lessons around reaching consensus in a group, separating out one's personal bias when searching for "the best solution", project management skills, time management skills, working within deadlines, inclusion, graciousness, professionalism and tons more. The whole experience was just so impressive and life changing for my child. You just don't get this depth of experience from school alone. I highly recommend it for anyone with kids old enough to join."

The 2015 "Trash Trek" Theme:
This year's FLL season's theme was the "Trash Trek" and was focused on ways we can all be more responsible with our trash, refuse and recycling. The FBRDs had to not only accomplish several trash related robotic missions like demolition clean up, trash truck transportation, plastic-bag disposal, etc... but they also had to do a research project and activity to make a real difference in their community by addressing some sort of trash/recycling related real world problem.

The FBRDs research project was one of what to do with greasy pizza boxes, which traditionally can not be recycled due to the grease saturated cardboard gumming up the works and ruining entire batches of cardboard. Kids are encouraged to consult with industry experts in the area they're looking in to, and they did so in this case.

The real surprise though was when they found that after talking to recycling experts in our area, that our new recycling center's Single Stream recycling service now had the needed technology to accept greasy pizza boxes. The recycling experts commented, "one of our biggest problems now [with single stream recycling] is getting the word out and educating the public that we can now accept greasy pizza boxes in the recycling system, so people no longer need to put them in the trash and send them to the landfill." After the FBRDs discovered this, they quickly came up with the idea of a pizza box education campaign to educate the public about this new change. The FBRDs got with two local pizza vendors and had "sticker parties" putting our team's custom designed pizza box sticker onto over 200 pizza boxes in Blacksburg, with more planned in the future.

On Saturday November 7th, we met with 10-12 other FLL teams, going head to head in the robotic competition and competing in the other research project and CORE values categories.

The short story is that the Fire Breathing Rubber Duckies made 2nd place, a huge success considering we're a rookie team. Not only that, but out end place robotic score was higher than even the 1st place score in the older 2nd division group. This was a HUGE success and the Duckies also took the "best Robot Design" award.. another huge honor.

All the kids (and most of the adults) leaned a lot, and all agree that this is a worthwhile effort that we think Racksburg will be involved with for years to come.

[1] www.firstlegoleague.org/mission/founders

Parent/Minors photo waiver sample is last photo in this album. See Tweeks for copies of all waivers.
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