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Michael's FLL Coach's Guide

Michael Schuh's FLL Coach's Guide

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Introduction

This page outlines my advice to new coaches.  I have coached one or two teams each year since my first FLL season in 1999.  I have developed a coaching style that works for me and I describe it below.

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Background

I think it is important to know where FLL came from and what it is about so here is a brief description.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), and LEGO® MINDSTORMSTM have joined forces to bring you the FIRST LEGO League (FLL). This exciting, new program introduces kids ages 9-14 to the wonders of science, math and technology in a fun and engaging way.

An extension of the High School Robotics Competition, FLL pairs an academic challenge with a sports-like playing field where kids invent independent robots. Using the LEGO MINDSTORMS Robotics Invention System, teams of students, teachers, engineers and parents receive a Challenge which is different every year. Each team is then responsible for the design, construction, programming, and testing of their robot to compete in the Challenge.

The LEGO MINDSTORMS Robotics Invention Challenge Kit includes over 700 LEGO pieces, motors, light and touch sensors, gears, a CD-ROM including the RCX code programming environment, and an infrared transmission tower to download the program directly into the robot.

The heart of the LEGO MINDSTORMS set is a micro-computer mounted inside a super-sized LEGO brick. This is called the RCX and is the brain for each invention.

FLL was created by Dean Kamen.  From the FLL website "Dean Kamen is the Founder of FIRST and President, DEKA Research and Development Corporation.  Dean Kamen is an inventor, an entrepreneur and a tireless advocate for science and technology. His roles as inventor and advocate are intertwined -- his own passion for technology and its practical uses has driven his personal determination to spread the word about technology's virtues and by so doing to change the culture of the United States."  Dean is a hero in my book.  He has devoted countless hours and millions of his own money to get more children interested in science and technology.  I am pleased to be helping out and thankful that you are helping out too.

My then 9 year old son and I helped out with resetting the playing field at a FIRST High School robotics competition in 1999 at the NASA Ames Research Center.  It was an amazing experience to see hundreds of high school students very excited and enthusiastic about participating in the robotics competition.  It was an electric atmosphere down on the playing field where we were volunteering.  It was at this competition that I learned that FIRST was putting together the FLL program and that 1999 would be their first year.  It was there that I asked my son if he wanted to do it and committed to making it happen for him.

I am a Ph.D. graduate in Mechanical Engineering from UC Berkeley with little or no training or experience in managing groups of people and in 1999 I had yet to coach a team in any sport or endeavor.  I put together a flyer and circulated it at my son's school and eight students signed up to participate.  We purchased two robot kits, registered our team, and had a great time.  It was a huge amount of work because back then you had to cut the playing field pieces from wood and assemble them yourself.  Then once you got that done, you realized that there were no tournaments to compete in so you had to locate other teams and then figure out how to put on a tournament.  Things are much easier now since the playing field is made up of a mat you role out and pieces that you assemble from LEGOs.  FLL has learned much and improved tremendously through the years.  The program has helped me relate and spend time with my children and allowed them to enjoy their natural born engineering talents.  I hope that you enjoy the program and get as much out of it as my children and I have.  I also will be bold and ask that if you can find the time, that you help spread the program and make it better.

Starting Your Own Team:

Teams are often associated with schools but they need not be.  Teams can be started by any group or collection of children and adults.

  • First see if you have enough children interested to make a team.  A team costs from $300 to $900 for a season (see cost details below) and the more children you have the lower the cost per child.  I like having 4 children per team.  This allows the team to break into two groups of two to work on different parts of the challenge.  Larger teams start to compete for the computer and robot when they break into groups of two.  Engaged children are great participants and ones with nothing to do can be very disruptive.
  • The program is designed for 4th through 8th graders.  We have found that the 4th graders can have a harder time staying focused than the older children and can potentially get lost on a team.  However, if the child is interested and motivated, they can be a contributing member of the team and get a lot out of it.  We have also found that if possible it is good to make up teams with similar ages and skill levels.  Younger or less skilled children will not participate as much if there are other team members that overshadow them.  Don't worry about teams made up of younger and inexperienced children being able to do well in competition.  They may surprise you.  One of the Los Altos youngest, rookie teams made it to the playoffs in the Northern California competition.
  • Find a coach.  The LEGO robot kit comes with a great training CD that I like to use to teach new team members how to program. Using this CD for training, the coach does not need to know much if anything about programming.  I see that the main job of the coach is to schedule meetings, get all of the materials in place, and keep the teams on task.
  • The Minnesota FIRST LEGO League has a wealth of resources for coaches and teams at their www.hightechkids.org web site.  Look under Information/Training/FLL/HSR_Training_Downloads for some great materials on coaching, robot building, and robot programing. Also look under Information/Training/FLL/HSR_Losson_Plans/Weekly_Lessons for more help on providing a good agendas for the first five team meetings for a new team. They have a email group, http://groups.yahoo.com/group/mnfll, for coaches that is very useful.  Previous messages are archived at this site.  New coaches can find lots of useful information at the Minnesota FIRST LEGO League web site.  A lot of the messages deal with Minnesota competition details and most of those can be skipped.  Other messages have some good information in them.
  • FLL has coaches resources listed at http://firstlegoleague.org/challenge/teamresources.
  • Sometime between April and August, register your team at the FIRST LEGO League (FLL) Web Site: http://www.usfirst.org/jrobtcs/flego.htm, and pay your money.  Your robot and playing field materials should arrive sometime in August or September.  The Challenge will be announced to all in early September.
  • Schedule the team meetings and visit the FIRST LEGO League (FLL) Web Site at www.legomindstorms.com/fll about once a week to keep informed.
  • If you start a team in Los Altos, CA, send me email so I can keep you informed of local activities.
  • Read everything on this page to learn more.

Coaching Your Team

Your Goals for the Team

      • Figure out what your goals are for your team.  For me, my goals are for them to enjoy building and programing robots so much that they look forward to coming to the meetings and want to do it again next year.  I find that if they have fun at it and are highly engaged, they come up with designs that work some or most of the time and that do fine in the competitions.  Most of the benefit from the season comes from the team meetings and the competitions are icing on the cake that helps focus the teams efforts and gives them a chance to show off what they have done.  This year, all five of last year's fourth graders that are still in town returned for another year.  In past years, I have had as high as a 50% attrition rate.  Some teams disband after one season.  I think I am noticing that teams with coaches who really want to see their teams win and know how the robots are built and programmed suffer high attrition rates.

Style

      • The team members are supposed to have fun, build and program the robots, have fun, learn about working on a team, have fun, learn about engineering and technology, and have fun.  All of it can be fun and it is my goal as a coach to do all I can to make it fun and get them to do all of these things.  If they have fun, they will want to come back for more.
      • When I coach, I try to help children overcome hurdles that they have been stuck on for an hour or so.
      • I encourage the children to take charge of the meetings and run them.  I make a few comments from time to time, but for the most part I stay out of the way.  In 2001, I coached a team of five sixth grade children.  After a few meetings, they started rotating who would run the meeting as the team captain.  This worked well.  This does not work for fourth graders because they need more structure and guidance.  In 2002, I coached a team of six fourth graders.  They were not mature enough to run the meetings and worked best when they were in groups of two.  We needed one or two other parents helped keep the team on task at all of the meetings.  Fourth graders require more attention than teams with older children.  While they did not make as much progress as teams made up of older children, they learned a lot and had a lot of fun.
      • I try to get other parents to let the children do the work.  Let's face it, this robotics stuff is fun and it is hard for the parents to let the children have all the fun.  When parents start making too many suggestions at the meetings, I quietly talk to them afterwards or on the side and ask that they let the team members sort out the problems and find their own solutions.

Things I do that work for the teams I have coached

      • At the beginning of each meeting, the team captain or I, review what the team did at the last meeting, then get the team to discuss and agree on what they think the team should do during the current meeting, and then go around and have each team member tell everyone what they are going to do during the meeting.  I try to keep the talking part of the meeting as short as possible.  Less than five minutes would be optimal but less than ten minutes is OK.  I always try and remember that the team is there to program and build and not talk.
      • Half way through the meeting and at the end of the meeting, I get the team to run against the challenge.  If they tell me, "gee, we don't have any wheels on the robot and have not written any programs for it:", I tell them to just run it around the board with their hands and tell us what the program and robot will do when it is finished.  If you don't have them do timed runs against the challenge following all of the rules on a regular basis, you may not get any done before you show up at the competition.  So make it part of the standard meeting.  It also helps to keep a chart showing their scores so that they can see their progress or lack of progress and consistency.
      • Try to be positive.  Try to keep a good ratio of good to critical statements.  If the team hears five or more good things for every bad thing, they will likely think things are ok and going well.  I believe that this is really important.  I am just as proud of a fourth grader team that does their best, has fun, and places anywhere at the competitions as a team that does really well.  And most importantly, I tell them so and I really mean it.
      • Another issue that often comes up is how to share the computer(s), robots, and/or the playing field.  If it is a problem, one approach that has worked is to have time slots that rotate through each small group or individual.  To do this, start a timer for 10 minutes.  They get the resource until the time slot is up.  If they don't need it during any part of their time slot, some other team member can use it during that time.  If the user who "owns" the time slot needs the resource again during their time, they get the robot back.  If they can tell that they will not need be able to use the resource for the rest of their time slot, they can forfeit the rest and have the next group start their time slot.  This helps a group that is having trouble get the resource back quicker than if they let others use the remainder of their time slot.  The time slot ends after 10 minutes or when the team forfeits the remaining time.  It does not get extended if they let some other group use the resource for part of their time.
      • Teams need help understanding the time line of the competition season.  I like to print out a simple calendar that shows all the weeks of the season with meeting, holidays, and competitions labeled and highlighted.  I will show them this calendar every other meeting or so and ask them how much more time they have before the next competition and ask them what they want to do before then.
      • Try to get the team members to pick out one or two missions and own them.  Then they are the ones that are responsible for doing all of the building and programing for that mission.  Be careful that the best performer does not do all of the missions.  Let team members do their missions even if they end up not working that well and result in a lower score.
      • At the competitions, only two team members are allowed at the table at a time.  No coaches.  Have the team members cycle through the missions.  Child 1 does missions one and then child 2 trades places with her and does mission 2 and so on.
      • For years, we have met Friday afternoons right after school and Sunday afternoons at 1:00 PM for 2 to 2.5 hours.  These times work well for children playing soccer and other sports.  The children loved it and looked forward to attending.  I believe that snacks and refreshments are a distraction and consume valuable meeting time so I try not to have them at meetings.  Skipping snacks on Sundays afternoons worked fine but I quickly learned that the children are really hungry after school on Fridays and they need a snack to do well in those meetings.  I have them wash their hands with soap after eating so that the LEGOS don't get food all over them and not work as well.

Things that I have done or seen done that I don't think work well

      I try to stick to the positive in coaching and life but sometimes it is helpful to come out and say what you think is wrong and/or could be done better.  With this in mind, here are some comments.
      • Sometimes it gets pretty intense as the competition approaches.  I have seen coaches and parents with the best of intentions try to "help" the team see what is wrong with their robot so that they can fix it and score more points.  They end up putting a lot of pressure on the team and the fun goes out of FLL for the team.  You can just see the stress in the team and the parent.  This is a very tough and hard area to deal with and I think it is much more important for the team to have fun and do their best, than it is for them to win and not want to participate the next year.  It is OK for a robot to not succeed at a mission.
      • I have seen teams where the coaches know way too much about the robot.  The coaches know the entire construction and programing of the robot.  It is OK to help some; however, let the team members do the fun building and programming.

Meeting Plans

      This section has things that I think are a good idea to do in the meetings.  You can mix up the order if it makes sense to you to do so.
      • At the first meeting, have each team member and the coaches talk about what their hopes and goals are for the season and write them down. Ask each person if they agree with these team goals or if they want to change them. For the 2005 season, our team's coaches' hopes and goals are:
        • That the team works together through the entire season.
        • That team members take on leadership roles in team meetings.
        • That team members learn to work with each other and respect each other.
        • That all individuals feel comfortable with voicing ideas.
      • Some of the seventh grader team members' goals and hopes are to:
        • Do well in competition(s).
        • Have a calendar showing team meetings and times.
        • Work together well.
        • Have a build schedule and follow it.
        • Have after-hour sessions and do them.
        • Have positive enthusiastic encouragement.
        • Have good kit organization and return parts where they go.
      • After recording your team's hopes and goals and your robot kit arrives, I suggest going through the programming training lessons with the team.  If you have time after that, get them to do some simple tasks like follow a line, go straight until they cross a line and then go back to where they came from, and go to a wall and stop (turn their motors off) when they hit it.  Section 3.9.3 entitled "Introductory Robot Exercises" on page 54 of the 2003 Team Manual has a very good series of exercises.  It is probably worth spending a meeting or two on these alone.
      • The team members usually love to put together LEGO kits and are usually very good at it.  The playing field elements are a bunch of these kits and it is a great team building exercise and a lot of fun for the team members to build these kits.  If you see that they are loosing focus on the training CD or the training exercises, have them work on building the playing field elements.  If you have limited resources, you can have one group work on building playing field pieces and the other doing the training and then switch off half way through the meeting.
      • Once the game is announced, September 12 for 2005, print out the game description and rules and go through them with the team.  The game description should have pictures to help it make sense.  Print several copies and have each team member read about a different part (mission) of the game and try to get a sense if they are understanding what they need to do.  Don't worry about it if they don't seem to understand it all the first time.  Do the same with the rules.  After the playing field pieces are all assembled and properly placed on the playing field, go through the game and rules again.
      • The FLL coaches guide talks about doing brain storming to come up with good ideas, but I have not had much luck with this.  This ends up being a lot of talking and most team members are there to work with the LEGOs.  So I don't do much of this but I think it might be a good idea if you can pull it off.  My seasoned and talented 8th grader came home from one meeting coached by someone else that consisted of mostly talking and he was very frustrated by this.  Fortunately they got back to building, programing and testing which is what he enjoys doing.
      • Once you have made it through the training, exercises, building the playing field elements, and understanding the game and the rules, most of the meetings will be design, building, programing, and test runs.
      • Try and get the team to settle on a good base structure for the robot.  The base structure consists of wheels, rotation sensor, and light sensor(s) as soon as possible so that they can move on to design attachments and program the robot.
      • I encourage teams to lock down their design a few weeks before the tournaments and run their robot over and over again to sort out the bugs but alas, most teams have had a hard time not making more than minor changes during the last few weeks.  It wasn't until before the third competition event of the year that one team embraced having three meetings of practice with only minor changes in the robot.  They were well served by this.

Resources for Coaches

For More Information:

    • Michael Schuh, MichaelnullLosAltosRobotics.Org, 965-8037 Home, 604-1460 Work.
    • One Page Overview - A quick overview of the FLL program details (PDF) file.
    • FIRST LEGO League Los Altos Web Site: www.LosAltosRobotics.Org.
    • FIRST LEGO League (FLL) Web Site: www.legomindstorms.com/fll.  This is where you find out about the current competition and a little help for coaches.
    • Contact FLL Team Support by E-mailing the FLL Teams Coordinators at fllteamsnullusfirst.org or by calling them at 1-800-871-8326 and selecting the Team Support Option.
    • The Minnesota FIRST LEGO League has a wealth of resources for coaches and teams at their www.hightechkids.org web site.  They have a email group, http://groups.yahoo.com/group/mnfll, for coaches that is very useful.  Previous messages are archived at this site.  New coaches can find lots of useful information at the Minnesota FIRST LEGO League web site.

They added some training materials to the training part of their website for the 2006 season. They are in the MN FLL/MN HSR Training Download Facts pages.

    • Strategy Videos These videos, on the same page as the challenge videos, are new in 2006, are not challenge specific. They are meant to address more strategic issues like how to use sensors, or how to approach retrievables. These videos were edited completely by Pieter Gagnon, a high school student in Minneapolis, who started competing in FLL during the pilot season, when he was in the 3rd grade.
    • Challenge Video Short videos describing each 2006 NANO Quest mission. These short videos are here for informational purposes only. These are not officially sanctioned by FIRST or LEGO, nor should they be considered 'official'. However, they are very useful for visualizing the challenge and for officials training.
  • Robotics Learning is a Silicon Valley California volunteer organization that puts on LEGO Robotics Workshops for students and mentors.
  • Playing at Learning is a Fremont California based non-profit that serves the public by offering fun, technology-based enrichment activities and outreach with a focus on programs that are affordable and sustainable. They believe that sparking an interest and keeping kids interested in math and science is a key to providing economic life choices and thus our youth-based activities focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills. The founders put on the 2004 FLL Northern California Competition. You can find out more about FLL and their other efforts at http://www.playingatlearning.org/NCaFLL.
  • Many of the FIRST LEGO League coaches and teams located in the Northern California (mostly in the San Francisco Bay) are subscribed to an email group with archives old messages at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/NCaFLL.  This group also talks about coaching issues and local competitions.
  • FIRST Web Site: www.usfirst.org.  This where you can find out more information about FIRST and their high school competition.  Their web site sends you to www.legomindstorms.com/fll for information about the FIRST LEGO League.
  • Skye Sweeney's FLL Page has a nice 67 page Coaches' Primer that was used as a resource for the official FLL Coaches' Handbook and FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) pages.   The FAQ pages are not an official FIRST document. They are an accumulation of knowledge derived from thousands of messages posted to the FLL forum over several seasons. There are many other good references there too.

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Frequently Asked Questions:

    • What is the time commitment for the children and parents?

 

      The time for the teams to meet will be decided by the team leader.  I anticipate that 4 to 6 hours per week should be enough to have fun and have a robot compete successfully in a competition event.  Each team will need one to two parents to coach and be at all meetings.  Multiple coaches can trade off to share the responsibility and fun.  It is expected that coaches will guide the children and help them make progress.  The goal is that the children should do the robot construction and programming.  We met Friday afternoons right after school and Sunday afternoons at 1:00 PM for 2.5 hours in the 2000 season.  These times work well for children playing soccer and other sports.  The children loved it and looked forward to attending. Frdiay evening from 7:00-9:30 PM works for older children.

 

       
    • My child wants to participate, but I don't know anything about robotics or programming.  How can I help?

 

      If everyone helps a least some, this will be more fun for everyone.  You can help out by helping with organizing the groups, planning and helping with the local contests, making awards, judging, building the contest 8' X 8' playing field, and a variety of other tasks.  All help will be greatly appreciated.

 

       
    • My 4th grader is 9 years old and the age range says 9-14, can he participate?

 

      We tried having 4

th

      graders on the teams and have found that they spend most of their time playing with the LEGOs.  I ask that they wait until they are in 5

th

      grade to join a team.  However, please talk to me if they are extremely talented and motivated and maybe we can find a way that they can participate.

 

       
    • Why should we consider having two robots? The second one is called a prototyping set.

 

      A prototyping set gives you the ability to build another robot to test different designs and programs, without destroying the robot you will be competing with.

 

       
    • What are the cost details?

 

    It costs $150 to register a team, $260 for a full robot kit, and about $100 for the playing field ($50 for the FLL kit and about $50 for the construction materials).  Participating in a competition should cost $25 to $100 per team.  T-shirts cost about $25 for each team member.  Add to this 6% shipping and your local tax rate and you have a rough idea of the cost.  Without the T-shirts, the cost is about $600 for a team to register, have one kit, and participate in a competition.  We divide the cost evenly between the team players.  You can save about $300 per team by using your own LEGO Mindstorms kit and add $300 if you want two kits.

 

null Los Altos FIRST LEGO League Homepage.

 

Changes Log:

21 Aug '05 Updated the links for '05 season. Schuh
26 Sep '04 Added link to Skye Sweeney's FLL Page
21 Aug '04 Minor Change
18 Dec '03 Fixed a few errors
12 Sep '03 Fixed a few errors.
10 Sep '03   First Version

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