Monthly Archives: September 2013

Limiting Creativity

dreamOne challenge we experience with the 8th Code Crackers team is their big ideas.  It is good they don’t see limits but as coaches, we have to ask questions that bring things back to reality.   They will take the simplest mission and see how cool they can make.  For example, we can collect the people and catapult them to the red zone in a net.   Really, catapults again!

They have some great ideas, like building a carbiner to pick up the loops when a rod would do.  They build it, it worked.  They could have attached a rod and programmed the mission in 15 minutes but they elected to take the entire meeting for this cool carbiner.  I admit, I get caught up in the excitement and want to see if they can do it.  Once the meeting is passed, I have coaches remorse.   We wasted an entire meeting on something that should have taken 15 minutes.

So we have a coaches challenge, how to allow their creativity and still get missions accomplished.  We devised two approaches, KISS and Time Permitting.  KISS stands for Keep It Simple Stupid.  I know stupid sounds bad but the kids remember it.  If they have an idea, it has to pass the KISS test before they start on it.  If it does not pass the KISS test, they can come back to it once they have their runs completed or work on the idea in their free time, just not meeting time.

We just implemented this and I am curious to see how it works out.  If you have ideas on managing creativity, I would love to hear them.   Please comment.



Lego Pneumatics for FLL

James Jeffrey Trobaugh. Winning Design!: LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT Design Patterns for Fun and Competition (Kindle Location 1698). Kindle Edition.

James Jeffrey Trobaugh. Winning Design!: LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT Design Patterns for Fun and Competition (Kindle Location 1698). Kindle Edition.

Lego Pneumatics are a little hidden secrete for FLL teams.  Lego Pneumatics uses air to power an actuator.   They can be great for powering an attachment or distributing power.

For Food Factor, the Code Crackers used pneumatics to turn the thermometer. Bumping into the wall to triggered the switch, raising an arm up to move the thermometer.

For Senior Solutions, the Capital Girls Too team used pneumatics to distribute power and had the motor trigger the switch.  It was used to release the ball and pick up the green medicine.

What is great about pneumatics, kids love them and will try to use them.  All you have to do is make them available and use the Edge method to educate them.  Everyone loves pumping the pump and seeing how much pressure they can get in the tank.  For Nature’s Fury, the Capital Girls actually set a requirement they would use pneumatics.  The girls team came up with really cool self-contained pneumatics powered attachment for getting the buildings that is triggered by an arm.  The Code Crackers team are using pneumatics as part of their Nature’s Fury research presentation.

Lego Pneumatics are available from Lego Education and can be found on eBay.



Sometimes you have to fail to succeed

Last night, I had a sub-team meeting with the Capital Girls working on the truck and ambulance mission.  This team made great strides, they had a great attachment and a working mission after their first meeting.  At the start of their second meeting, it would veer off into the buildings.  Turns out the friction from the truck and ambulance wheels play a big role in the success or failure of this mission.  Something that looks simple can be very hard.

This will happen during every teams season and is very frustrating.  Something will work, then it want.  Sometimes it is battery level but for the most part, there is no rhyme or reason. I tell my team we just increased the sample size and it is better to know now than later.  The more your teams test, the better they will understand the characteristics of a mission and can adjust.   The girls did not realize it was the truck and ambulance wheel friction that was causing the inconsistency until after 20 runs.  By then the meeting was over.  They have some stuff to figure out. 

You can count on luck, it has helped us, but having a large run sample size really matters for having a consistent robot and knowing what to expected at tournament.  Log each run, note if it was a happy or sad face.  I don’t like using the terms successes and failures, the terms are to black and white and just because a mission did not work perfect does not make it a failure.  If you learn something from an unsuccessful run, then you succeeded at learning something.  Download a copy of our Mission Log to use with your team.  It uses :) and :( faces to indicate how the team felt about the run.





We Have Fun!

In reading some list serve threads about allowing 4 motors, I was reminded of one of my favorite core values,  “We have fun.”  I can say this for both my teams, we have fun.   Robots are inconsistent, so you have to take FLL with a have fun attitude.  The image above is the Capital Girls doing The Sid Shuffle.  My daughter’s teacher showed this to her when studying continental shifts and she introduced it at our first team meeting.  We do it every meeting,  it is a great meeting break or end of meeting activity.   The love doing it.

cc_floodcity cc_hammer The Code Crackers have discovered Lego Commander, a Lego app that makes the EV3 a remote controlled robot using an IPad or Android and Bluetooth.  They start most meetings doing remote controlled robots and they have fun.  They had a blast building flood city, their prototype for their research project.   They even got to play with power tools.  Note, safety goggles where in use and safety was the top priority.   I am happy to report no injuries.  It did take them a couple tries to get a square box, nailing is something they are still mastering. I’ll give them credit, after assembling the non-square box, they used a square to ensure it was right the second time.  Something I would not have thought of and I own two squares.


Photo Square Challenge – You should see the smiles!

This year is very different, the Code Crackers are self managing and are very focused. The Capital Girls are very relaxed and are bringing concepts to missions that shows their experience.   There is a “We have fun” value that both teams share.

Capital Girls Too Drop Test

Boy Scout and Girl Scout Methods

I am a Scout Master for Boy Scouts and a Troop Leader for Girl Scouts.  Several members on my teams are also in my scout troops, which is great because I can just hold up the Scout Sign and get everyone’s attention.  These organizations have been helping develop youth for over 100 years, so I thought, what can I borrow from scouting for First Lego League?

Three things come to mind, badges, closing circle and the EDGE method.



Both Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts have a badge reward system.  Boy Scouts have over 100 merit badges, including robotics.  You have to earn certain merit badges to get Eagle.  Girl Scouts have different badges for each membership level.  The badge reward system works. I developed badges for First Lego League and am trying it with the Capital Girls.   So far, the results have been encouraging. I use the badges to recognize team contribution and more importantly, to encourage team members to learn and try new things.   I think we have about 30 badges. For example, you can earn a line following or wall squaring badge. Because they want to earn badges, they take the time to learn about a concept.  When they are doing run strategy, they figure out how to apply a badge concept like wall or line squaring.  The badges are not just robot focused, they also cover project and core values.  My two favorites are Team Spirit and Supporter.  Theses are badges any team member can award to another team member and there is no limit to how many you can earn.  If someone encourages a team member, they tend to get a supporter badge.  If some has a really positive attitude, the often receive a Team Spirit badge.  Once a team member earns a badge, they stick it on the back of their team notebook.  Download our team badges and requirements to learn more.  

Closing Circle

corevaluesbuttonIn Girl Scouts, we do a closing circle at the end of each meeting.  The girls cross their arms and holds hands.  One person starts, squeezing the person’s hand on the right.  When your hand is squeezed, you stick you right foot forward and squeeze the hand on the right.  When it gets to the last person, they say something they liked about the activity and then everyone spins out of the circle.

In my Boy Scout Troop, everyone crosses their arms and does the Scout Blessing, “May the great Master of all Scouts be with us ’til we meet again, be prepared.”

For Robotics, I adapted the closing circle from Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.  We call it a confidence circle.  The team gets in a circle and each team member must say something positive about the person to their right.  The positive comment has to be related to the meeting or activity, not “I like your hair”.  Once the circle completes, we reverse the direction if we have time.  I sometimes make the team switch around so people are not always next to the same people.  When I first started this, the girls really struggled with giving a word of encouragement.  It was not something they were used to doing.  Now, they are instant and meaningful. The real purpose of the circle is to have them lift each other up and focus on the positive.   I was touched at our last meeting when they did an impromptu group hug.

EDGE Method

The EDGE method is a Boy Scout concept for experiential learning, or “learning by doing”.

Explain how it is done – Tell them

Demonstrate the steps – Show them

Guide learners as they practice – Watch them do it

Enable them to succeed on their own – Use memory aids, practice it, they teach it


We start with EDGE in the summer months, doing challenges like the SUMO Challenge, to help the youth understand sensors and to develop advanced programming flow.  Once we get into the season, we use EDGE as part of Robot Design and programming, the team does several experiments, like what wheel size is the fastest.  Once the team has a base robot, we do robot test or field mat challenges that leverage EDGE. The drop test is the youth’s favorite.  Hold the robot 3 feet, then drop it.  Then, 6 feet.  Takes lots of pictures before the drop test.  This teaches the kids about solid robot design.  See Robot Design and Program Team Notebook section for some of the EDGE exercises.  To enable, we use badges and a series of reference posters (Program Flow, Line Following) on the wall that are used as memory aid.  We also have each youth teach the rest of the team what they learned when they figure out  a new concept.


Run Strategy

For our run strategy meeting, we used the elements pictures from glued to index cards.  Each team member has a scoring sheet from techbrick and the field mat has Avery round label stickers 5472 with the mission points next to each mission model.

IMG_3254 cg-strategy

We appointed a team member to facilitate the strategy session, treating it like a core values challenge.  The team uses the cards to layout mission runs, taking into account attachments, location and difficulty.  After about an hour, the team had a run strategy.  If everyone starts talking over each other or if a couple team members are dominating the session, we use a talking ball.  You have to have the ball to talk.  This allows the shy team members to have a voice.  The next step is for each team member to rank their run preferences.  Meeting availability and run preference are used to form sub-teams.  Below are the two teams run strategies.  What always surprises me is how they sometimes go down the same path but with a different thought process.  In looking at their strategy, they stayed the same for runs 1 and 2, deviated for a couple runs and then both elected to get the supplies when going for the red.  The debate is also interesting.


Strategy-CC-v1 Strategy-CG-v1IMG_3255 20130907-073406.jpg

Why Sub-Teams?

Sub-teams require more meetings for the coaches but work great for our teams.  We find that sub teams make the team more productive.  With only three team members present, they are able to focus better, ask hard questions, and challenge themselves to tackle more advanced programming techniques.  Having all 7 or 10 people working on a robot or program at one time is just not productive. 

Our meeting strategy is to meet as an entire team once a week to work on project, core values and common tasks.  The sub teams meet once a week to work on their specific runs. There are team rules about robot changes that could impact other sub teams.


How do you keep code safe?

Many teams have horror stories about a team member changing or saving over someone’s program.  To avoid this nightmare, teach your team to do code management and version control.  If you are a software developer, this should make complete sense.  Create a GitHub or CodePlex project and go.  Sounds simple but trust me, figuring out these solutions is not easy.

My teams took the easy path, we use DropBox.  You can get 2 GB for free!  What is great, you can share files and programs with the entire team.  No more thumb drives!

We use a naming convention for files and backup all program files after each meeting.  We can get back to any point in time and are protected against a computer crash.  Below is our process.

File Naming Convention:

When programming, the teams follows a naming convention for program names.

{RUN Name} – V {Version Number}

The version number is incremented when a team member starts a new program unit.  For example, using the Nature’s Fury Challenge, a unit might be triggering the airplane and the next unit could be picking up the water.   Some of the team members, not all, break up units using My Blocks.  My Blocks also follow the same naming scheme.  I love My Blocks, the only issue is the 15 minutes you lose waiting on a kid to pick an icon.


dropboxfoldersAfter each practice that involves programming, we do a backup.   In the team’s Dropbox program folder, we create a folder based on today’s date, e.g. 9-6 and copy the team’s program folder into the newly created folder.  This backup process enables the team to get back to any point in time.

badge_outsidetheboxTwo 8th grade boys came up with new base escape program.  It uses dual color sensors to know when the robot reaches the base black border line.  To avoid being tripped up by the black text in base, both color sensors have to detect black.  The “And” logic block triggers the loop exit when both sensors detect black,  I thought this was outside the box thinking.   To see how we enable youth to understand and apply program logic, see the Program Logic Poster.


Scheduling 10 People

I wonder how people scheduled activities before email. I have 10 girls on the Capital Girls team and 7 boys on Code Crackers.  In the old days, I would be calling 17 families trying to work out schedules.  Email works but is not much better than calling.  People can indicate when they are available but you still have to rifle through all the emails to get a complete picture.

Doodle to the rescue.  Doodle is a group scheduling website that is free.  We use Doodle to determine practice availability, t-shirt sizes, meeting attendance and tournament preferences.  Try doodle at

Note, this is not a paid endorsement.  I have used Doodle for years and love it.



Research Project Coming to Life

After doing the research kick-off and narrowing the topic to flooding, I get an email from one of the Code Crackers.  He wanted to come over and share his project idea.  After talking with him via phone and learning he had a great concept, I asked him to email me.  Below is what he sent me.

IMG_0109  IMG_0112  IMG_0110  IMG_0111 IMG_0113  IMG_0114  IMG_0108  IMG_0107

Impressive right?  He is only in the 8th grade and conceived this idea. He even went as far as building a pneumatic prototype.  At our Thursday meeting, the boys came up with a plan to build a miniature Lego city and working flood barrier wall.  Guess who gets to go to the Lego store Saturday?  They had a blast testing it, see the video below.


Robot Design: The Straight Test

For a robot to be consistent, it must go straight.  As my teams build, they can earn badges for performing robot tests.  The straight test is simple:

  1. Program the robot to go straight 4 rotations using a motor power starting at 30.
  2. Run the robot and observe if it goes straight.
  3. Record the results.
  4. Repeat with motor speeds of 50, 70, 100.

The Capital Girls, had a build meeting today with four out of the ten girls.  Their goal was to finish the robot by adding a third wheel, bumpers and sensors.  After 2 hours, they managed to just add the wheel and bumpers.

The third wheel was a challenge, and a discussion erupted about using fours wheels.  In the design meeting, not everyone agreed on three wheels but majority ruled.  The build team elected to following the design plan and extended the bearing wheel from the EV3 base robot so the robot was level.

IMG_1766 IMG_1760

As the meeting was ending, the girls ran a straight test.  The robot went sort of straight but waddled badly.  The waddle was very obvious.

After everyone left, my daughter asked if she could try a four wheel design.  I said yes, with the understanding she had to keep the bearing third wheel component so she could share both designs with the entire team and let them decide.

After her build, we did the straight test and, as you might have guessed, fours wheels ran straight as an arrow.

After her brother saw her design, he accused her of copy his team’s design.  Being who she is, she said, “Yes, we copied your design.”  She had not even seen his design – siblings!

For the design process, each team used the Robot Design Guide and had similar answers but different rationales.  The boys wanted a three-wheel robot for fast pivot turns.  The girls wanted a smaller robot.  As of now, they each have 4 wheels designs but got there for different reasons and have different chassis designs.  The Code Crackers wanted to tackle the debris challenge and thought four wheels would make the robot more stable going over the obstacles.  The Capital Girls were going to ignore the debris challenge but could not get a three-wheel robot to go straight.  Below are both teams’ designs.  You might notice the back wheels for both teams do not have a tire, just a rim.  When doing design planning, there are two wheel tests the teams perform to understand the speed and traction characteristics of the wheel options.  The tests teach two wheel concepts: 1) the bigger the wheel, the faster it will go, and 2) the more contact surface and wheel material, the more traction/friction.  This learning exercise, along with the straight and balance tests, guides the robot design.  What I like about the exercises is that they guide the design process through testing and exploration, helping the teams determine why, not just what.   To learn more about the robot testing, download our Robot Design Guide.


Capital Girls (Left) | Code Crackers (Right)