Every fall, student robotics teams from across the country and around the world participate in highly competitive FIRST LEGO League (FLL) tournaments, including those held at Southern California’s LEGOLAND itself. This past weekend, Windward hosted a Middle School “Spring Friendly,” a smaller-scale, informal competition designed to foster further interest in robotics and build connections with other Los Angeles-area independent schools. Dozens of students in grades 3-9 attended the event, with Windward’s own teams joined by counterparts from Westside Neighborhood School, Marlborough School, Westmark School, and St. James Episcopal School.
According to Cindy Beals, Director of Windward’s STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) Program and Co-Advisor to the Upper School robotics team, the event was specifically designed to provide an introduction to the principles and values involved with more formal FIRST LEGO League robotics competitions. “The event was conceived to familiarize younger students with the challenges that they would encounter at an official robotics contest, in a lower-risk, friendly atmosphere,” Beals said. “This was the first actual tournament that many of the kids had ever participated in, so while entrants were judged on design, programming, and strategy, we wanted to place an equal emphasis on the importance of teamwork, cooperation, and problem solving.”
Teams at the Spring Friendly were given the same missions faced by FLL competitors around the globe last fall, but each entry tackled the challenges with different strategies and approaches. Judges scored participants on performance, robot design, and core values, and also recognized each team for the unique strengths they brought to the competition. Co-organizer Becky Carter, Coach of Windward’s Middle School teams, noted that every group showed tremendous enthusiasm – not just the ones who took top honors. “The whole point of the day was to meet our neighbors, for kids to help other kids, and for everyone to share ideas about the scientific concepts at work. I loved seeing the level of intensity and dedication in all the teams. When the results were announced, each team was as excited as the next, no matter what the award.” Added Beals, “Our goal was to generate interest and excitement for further involvement in robotics, and this was truly a contest in which everyone walked away a winner.”
At the end of the competition, visitors were treated to a hands-on demonstration of a more sophisticated robot, one that Windward’s Upper School team had engineered from the ground up for use in the advanced VEX Robotics competition. “We wanted to give all of our visitors a taste of what operating the VEX robot was like because it shows a logical extension of ideas introduced through the FIRST LEGO League challenges,” said faculty member Dr. Simon Huss, Head Coach of Windward’s Upper School robotics program. “Robotics is a terrific way for students - especially younger ones that are first exploring an interest in science - to experiment within these different areas and potentially find a passion that could engage them for years.”
Some of the participants in the Spring Friendly event will do just that, moving on for further study in robotics at summer camps or in formal programs at their schools. Equipped with experience and practiced skills, these students will be better prepared for formal competition at large-scale FLL events in the fall. And with the informal spring event clearly a success, plans for a repeat next year are already being considered - possibly with even more ”friendly” entrants in the mix.
Is your child interested in learning more about robotics? Windward is holding a robotics summer camp for students who will be entering grades 8-10 in the fall. Registration information for the session, which runs June 18-22, is available at www.windwardschool.org/summeracademics.