Sometimes personal and work worlds collide in the most unexpected places. I went to the First Lego League (FLL) North Sound Qualifiers in Washington State to cheer on my niece and her LEGO Robotics team. I thought I was going to watch some cool LEGO robots do cool stuff, support family, maybe have a celebratory feast if things went well. What I saw and learned drew me into more events and learning more about these inspirational kids.
A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE LEAGUE
Teams in the league consist of team members between the ages of 9 and 14 years old. Teams work on a “Robot Game” and a “Research Project” that solves a real-world problem around a particular theme for each year. Last year the theme was Animal Allies, this year it is “Hydro Dynamics: Exploring the location, use, storage and movement of water.” The Robot Game was fun to watch but what really inspired me was how these kids researched and identified a challenge around the theme, then set about solving it over a period of several months.
Let me introduce you to two First Lego League teams with whom I’ve had the pleasure of spending some quality time of late.
TEAM: LEGO Lassies
MEMBERS: Ayuka, Cate, Hadley, KJ, Shreya, Willow, Coach Scott, Coach Laurie, and Mentor Lalit
YEAR FORMED: 2016
Three friends formed a team together last year and each friend invited another friend to join this year.
The LEGO Lassies looked for a problem that was small enough to actually fix in the time allowed, but would also make an impact on the world. True to the FLL Core Values (more on that below) they also wanted to do a project that was fun and interesting. In their preliminary research around water, they had read an article about water fountains and how many people don’t trust them. Then during a visit to the nearby Brightwater Center, they saw a video showing a girl who had to carry water to her home every day and they had this “a-ha” moment.
PROBLEM THEY WANT TO SOLVE: We have water fountains available to us but many people don’t use them because they don’t trust the water to be clean.
HOW THEY RESEARCHED: Talked with experts at nearby water treatment plant, a recycling center, the water department and the parks department. Presented and surveyed classes at different schools, family members, and friends about their trust of water fountains and the likelihood they would drink from a fountain with an indicator of clean water.
WHAT THEY LEARNED: Over 58% of those surveyed (n=372) who don’t trust water from drinking fountains and prefer bottled water, would drink out of a fountain that had an indicator that the water was safe.
SOLUTION THEY FOUND: The LEGO Lassie Spout ™
Design and build a spout with a turbidity* sensor that can replace the spout on water fountains. If the water is clear, green lights come on to indicate it’s okay to drink. If the water is cloudy, red lights come on to indicate you shouldn’t drink it. The spout uses only the energy produced by the water coming through the fountain to power it. (*Turbidity = cloudiness due to particles in the water.)
OUTCOME THEY WANT: By getting people to trust and use water fountains, the Lassies hope to cut down on the purchase of bottled water (bad for the environment) and sugary drinks (bad for your health).
MEMBERS: Abhinav, Anirudh, Ethan, Kunal, Nakul, Siddarth, Coach Jose, Coach Sharmila and Coach Sudha
YEAR FORMED: 2016
They were all family friends who enjoyed LEGOs and formed a team.
The ROBOTRONS were inspired by the video “A World Without Water” where they learned of the struggles of people around the world who don’t have easy access to water like they have in their homes. Like the Lassies, they wanted to do something that would actually have an impact. The team came up with the idea of spreading awareness of the lack of water and how people can do their part to not waste it. They thought about making a game about conserving water but struggled to come up with a way to make it fun. They also came up with the idea of making a comic book (featuring Waterman!), but when they learned one of the team member’s parents had experience with filming, they changed their idea to create an awareness video.
PROBLEM THEY WANT TO SOLVE: Parts of the world do not have easily accessible clean water like we have in the United States. Only 3% of the world’s water is fresh, non-salinated water.
HOW THEY RESEARCHED: Field trips to Rocky Reach Dam and the Brightwater Facility. Kept a 2-week log of how much water they used. They did surveys and gave presentations with their video to classes in several local schools.
WHAT THEY LEARNED: Americans use an average of 100-150 gallons of water per person per DAY. Compare this to 35 gallons in Mexico and India and 39 gallons in England.
SOLUTION THEY FOUND: “Water You Doing?” YouTube Video & Fundraising Campaign
Produce a video and share across multiple media to raise awareness around the issue. Raise money to support the non-profit organization Reviving Water Resources.
OUTCOME THEY WANT: The team would really like to see average water use by Americans to go down by at least half and more drinkable water made available to countries that are suffering due to lack of water.
It wasn’t until I went to the Open House hosted at Coach Scott’s house that I realized how these teams embodied open science. Yes, they were going to be competing against each other at the Western Washington State Championship, yet here they were leaning over tables and explaining how they programmed their robots to solve each of the challenges they’d be facing in the competition. Each team took turns sharing the presentations they were going to give on their research and helped each other practice for the judges questions.
When I asked the teams what they had learned about working as a team, they both brought up the core values of the League, particularly the part about “Gracious Professionalism®” and “Coopertition®”. Gracious Professionalism is defined as competing but treating each other with respect and lending a helping hand when needed. Coopertition is a made up word used by the League to get across how teams can cooperate AND compete at the same time so everyone can improve the next time. (You can see the full set of core values here.) It was clear from my conversations with them and how they behaved with each other that these weren’t just things they agreed to so they could enter the competition. They each had an understanding of these values and demonstrated them throughout the season.
I think the FLL is onto something here. Should these be our core values for doing scientific research? If not, why not? These aren’t values unique to doing LEGO robotics, or values just for kids. These are things we should all aspire towards… even (perhaps, especially) the “have FUN” part!
Their first year, neither team made it past the regional qualifiers, this year they both made it to the Western Washington State Championships held earlier this week. Neither team went home with awards from that event but both of them progressed so far over the last year, I am really excited to see what they come up with for next year.
As for their projects, the Lassies want to go forward and see if they can actually get their spout into production so people will trust fountains again and reduce purchases of bottled water and sugary drinks. The Robotrons want to keep raising awareness about how to cut back on water usage and asking folks to support Reviving Water Resources.
If you’d like to get in touch with these inspiring kids and learn more about First Lego League and/or their projects, you can reach out to Coach Scott at Coach@lego-lassies-robotics.club and Coach Sudha at firstname.lastname@example.org.