They might have named their team robot “The Terminator.” They might have a “team snack,” and it might be popcorn. But chances are, you probably aren’t as smart as these fifth graders — at least, not when it comes to Lego engineering.
The “Block Busters,” made up primarily of Selbyville Middle School students, is currently in the midst of their inaugural year as members of the First Lego League (FLL), going up against other schools from across the state in Lego-based robotics competitions.
According to coach Chester Boggs — who’s been involved with FLL for nine years — while his squad might be young, so far this season they haven’t looked much like rookies. In fact, the team nearly tripled their score from the first scrimmage of the season to the second and appears on track to add more points at the FLL Challenge.
“We’ve come a long ways,” said Boggs. “We were looking at 129 points the first scrimmage, and they were over 327 at the tournament. They’re on track to be somewhere in the 450 to 490 range.”
Each year, the FLL teams are assigned theme projects, where they must build, program and then operate robots to perform certain tasks. They’re judged on a variety of factors, spanning from execution to originality — but perhaps more importantly, the missions are typically of some societal significance.
This year, the FLL is working with the Delaware Solid Waste Authority, so the team designed and constructed two recycling bins and placed them at the end of the Rads and Rockets hallway at SMS in hopes of encouraging use.
“Their project this year was in regards to sanitation and recycling,” said Boggs. “The district has a recycle program, so the team built recycle bins for the school. [The kids] understand that the competition isn’t everything — the project is just as important.”
The Block Busters may be aspiring engineers, astronauts and physics professors, but their interest in the subject matter hasn’t been the only factor in their success so far. According to them, team chemistry has been every bit as important, if not more so.
“Everybody takes part in this. Everybody has to take part in this,” said eighth-grader Lian Adkins.
“It’s not just one person programming,” added Coleman Woodard, a fourth-grader and the team’s youngest member. “It’s all of us coming together and thinking and doing it.”
From programming the robot, to building the course, to getting the explanation ready for the judges — with autistic seventh-grader James “Mez” Cook boosting the team morale and offering his unique insight into mechanics — everyone has their own task on the team.
Isaac Chandler went on to explain that, whether a task is assigned to him or not, it’s important to learn it anyway.
“Certain people do the programming, but we actually all learn what they’re doing, review what they’re doing, instead of just being mindless. We check on each other and see what everybody’s doing.”
The teamwork aspect is so important in the process that the FLL even dedicates a section of the rubric to judge it.
“[The judges are] looking at how well the team works together,” said Boggs. “They get judged on in the rubric. The kicker is, they only have two and a half minutes to do it. At the state competition, they have two teams playing at the same time — they’ll have it set up, they’ll both go at the same time. Then they have five minutes to explain what they did.”
But even though they’re building robots, and sometimes going through the painstaking efforts of adjusting coordinates by fractions of degrees, time and time again, just to get it exactly right — and, in the case of Adkins, even already taking college courses — at the end of the day, the Block Busters are still kids having a good time.
“For years, I’ve been looking for a place where I could meet other people that enjoy Legos as much as I do and want to do stuff with them that I thought would be amazing,” said Adkins. “I look to this as an opportunity. There’s tons of kids who enjoy Legos. It could help them all the way through college.”
“Kids have minds that work a lot faster because we use our imaginations more,” added Chandler.
The Block Busters will get a chance to show off those imaginations at the FLL Challenge this weekend. But the added competition and bigger venue doesn’t intimidate them much. In fact, they’re ready to unleash “The Terminator.”
“Quote this,” Woodard said when asked if the team would be nervous headed into the FLL Challenge: “Heck naw!”