On Feb. 1, around 400 middle school students assembled on Penn’s campus to test their mettle as part of an international robotics tournament. Organized through FIRST LEGO League (FLL), the competition is aimed at getting students interested in science, technology, engineering, and math.
This is the fourth year the University has served as FLL’s partner for the southeast Pennsylvania region. The tournament is the culmination of a year’s worth of work by the University’s FLL steering committee, which features students, staff, and volunteers, and is led by Rebecca Hayward, associate director for research and educational outreach at the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and event director for the regional championship.
Preparing for the tournament entails supplying materials, training coaches, and organizing qualifying tournaments throughout the School District of Philadelphia. As an FLL volunteer through the Americorps VISTA program, Amanda Gordon has an up-close perspective on that effort, as well as its impact on students.
“Kids from underserved communities are not exposed to STEM-related careers early on, so as they get to the college level, their numbers are low,” Gordon says. “FLL helps get them started. It’s great watching their excitement; you can see just how smart they are.”
This year’s theme was “Nature’s Fury.” In the run-up to the tournament, teams were required to formulate research projects and presentations on topics related to natural disaster preparedness and response—especially how robots might lend a hand.
Afterward, more than 150 teams from the region battled at qualifying events, with the top 46 advancing to the Feb. 1 competition in Irvine Hall.
There, the teams were tasked with building and programming LEGO robots that could complete a variety of natural-disaster-themed missions, including clearing a runway of debris and removing a fallen tree branch from a set of power lines.
The winning squad was “That Other Team” from West Chester, who will go on to represent the southeast Pennsylvania region at the FIRST World Festival international championship in St. Louis at the end of April.
The program’s staying power with students is clear—steering committee member Jeffrey Ng first got involved while in high school as a mentor for the team from Chestnut Hill Academy. Now a sophomore at Penn studying systems engineering, he says the program’s benefits extend beyond the sciences.
“Even if you are not interested in robots or programming, you are able to learn skills that are valuable in any field, such as public speaking and presenting, teamwork, and research skills,” Ng says. “I believe that every bit helps, even if the results of your efforts are not immediately visible.”