I can still remember the pressure as my sister called out, “three, two, one, LEGO!”. We had worked toward this goal for the past year – drastically revising strategies and even the physical construction and program of our robot at the last moment to achieve what we had originally thought impossible – a perfect score.
“One minute remaining.” The pressure mounted, but we fought to stay calm and focused. While stress could help us get in the zone, it could also cause us to make rash decisions or become imprecise in our alignments of the robot.
“Ten, nine, eight, seven…” I will never forget that moment. One January 23rd, 2008, the LEGO Mountaineers scored a perfect 400. Even nine years later I haven’t forgotten what that felt like or the essential life lessons I learned through competing in the FIRST LEGO League competitions
Through competitive robotics I learned how to solve problems and think outside the box – often in high pressure situations. In one of the off-season competitions we attended, we participated in an “On the spot competitions” where the teams were assigned a mission and given one hour to create a solution while under the observation of a group of roving judges. This forced me to learn how to make quick decisions and to think on the spot. I had to. I also learned how to take seemingly overwhelming problems and break them down into smaller, more manageable pieces. In programming, this often literally meant breaking it down into single commands and testing, over and over again.
I wasn’t just bogged down in the technical troubleshooting or execution. These competitions also taught me how to strategize at a high level to get the best score. Every mission was worth a varying number of points. Some were harder than others, others were close to our base while others were farther away. Often our team had to come up with creative ways to combine missions to minimize the number of times our robot traveled back to the base.
In some competitions, we had to make decisions regarding which missions to do first and which ones to leave out. Other times the strategy came into play as we decided how to tackle a mission. In the video you may notice that our robot traveled forward and backward with ease. In an earlier version of the same mission, we had programmed our robot to turn around each time and only travel forward – losing valuable time. These lessons in strategy have helped me immensely in my job as I have been able to work with senior leadership to develop high-level strategic plans, yet work with IT, Software Development, and other organizational units to execute on those plans.
Negotiating and Teamwork
Did you know that boys and girls think so differently? Yeah, I know it seems pretty basic, but I grew up in an all-girl family and before this year, the team had been only girls. I about had a heart attack the when I learned that my dad had invited boys to join our team. I thought they weren’t really serious and were just fooling around. For example, in a mission to gather hanging loops off trees and bring them to a certain area, we girls built a spear and slowly and meticulously speared every loop. The boys only chose to follow the first part and built their robot to smash into the trees and knock off the loops.
You know what I learned, through this? When we combined both problem solving approaches, we were able to achieve far more than either group was able to do previously. While this seems like a silly example, I really feel that FLL taught me how to work on teams with people who think very differently than I do. It taught me to listen, consider their views, negotiate, and ultimately, to work together.
Communication was infused in every part of this competition. We had to communicate clearly with our team members to get things done. We had to give technical presentations to judges on our robot – many of whom were not engineers but merely volunteers who were generously giving their time (this, by the way, is where I learned how to communicate technical concepts simply). We had to communicate our team spirit both non-verbally in the ways we worked together as well as in presentations to judges. We had to research a problem in the world ranging from city rodent infestations to accessibility issues to nanotechnology and develop a proposal for how we would resolve that problem. I learned how to teach my teammates how to program and later how to train technical judges what to look for when judging. I created a robotics blog and learned how to write about what I was doing. I even received several incredible opportunities as a result of this blog.
This is just a high level summary of the many skills I learned through over twelve years competing in and judging the FLL tournaments. I am so thankful that I had that opportunity to participate and I feel these skills have provided me with incredible opportunities and largely helped shape who I am today.
Do you have a story for how you learned any of these skills? Let me know in the comments below!