First-Time FIRSTers

As some of you know, my fourth-grade son signed up for his local FIRST Lego League team this year (see “Building the Perfect Roboticist”), and was very excited about the opportunity to build Legos and build robots and a combination of the two. I was excited about his chance to learn all about building robots—what it takes to make it structurally sound, to teach it to perform the necessary tasks, and to come up with ideas about what tasks might work best in competition.

What I didn’t expect was that I would be the most robot-savvy grownup on a team made up of all first-time Lego Leaguers, almost all of which are wiley, rambunctious, sugar-crazed (how many different ways can I say “hyper”?) fourth-graders. It’s like herding cats—except in this case the cat herder knows next to nothing about designing and programming autonomous vehicles. The look on all the parents’ faces as they listened to what it was they would have to teach the kids to do was classic. I've never seen such perfect deer-caught-in-headlights expressions.

Actually, the programming part is easy, thanks to the kid-friendly version of LabView that comes with the Lego Mindstorms kit. It’s coming up with a sturdy, reliable, versatile robot that seems a little problematic. If anybody has any advice they'd like to offer (or vehicle designs), I’d love to hear it. Advice on how best to get all these ideas across to 9- and 10-year-olds would be greatly appreciated also. I’m definitely feeling like the ill-prepared teacher mentioned in a recent reader response about STEM education (see “Throw Out What We’ve Learned”).

Lastly, tasked with developing an innovation related to food safety, I think the kids have come up with a pretty good idea. If any of you packaging machine builders out there have experience with packaging yogurt, I’d love the opportunity to pick your brain. Please email me at ahand@putman.net.

Thanks for all your help!
Aaron Hand, managing editor, Control Design