My intentions with this tutorial is to provide a first time FLL coach with a brief, but solid guide for getting started. It will point you to the best web resources I know, as well as provide knowledge I have gained along my coaching journey. I have coached a FLL team for 3 years, as well as run an after school robotics club in the off-season for 2 of those years. Each year I have had mostly new kids on the team. My team won regionals and went to state two of those years, and was runner-up for state the other year. So, here goes…
Starting a Team
1. Read Start a Team
2. Look over last year’s challenge, Food Factor, to get an idea of what the challenges are like. Pages 2-5 describe the Research Project. Pages 6-22 describe the Robot Game.
3. Use these wonderful web resources
- VA/DC FLL
- VA/DC FLL ListServ
- FLL YouTube Channel
- FLL Blog
- FLL Twitter
- Tech Brick (Great site for forms, worksheet, etc related to latest challenge)
- LEGO Engineering
- NXT Programs Projects
Start-up costs for a team was about $840 for 2011; then $360+ (depending on number of tournaments entered) per year after that, not including optional or one-time costs below. Remember, there are numerous corporations out there who will cover or help cover these costs. Even high school FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) teams will help sponsor younger teams. Just ask them. Also, talk to your FLL Operational Partner for your region. They may be able to point you in the right direction to get sponsorship in your area. Don’t know who your FLL Operational Partner is? Find out here.
When you register for your team, you will need to pay for the following items:
- Annual Team registration = $225
- Field setup kit (mission models) = $65 (+ $20 S & H)
- LEGO Mindstorms kit = $420 – this is a onetime cost, as your robot may be used from year to year after purchase. I purchased my first kit through the registration process, which gave me a team license for the NXT-G software. I purchased future kits through LEGO Education.
Local tournament registration = $50.
State tournament registration = $100. Travel related costs may be incurred.
Table creation costs – about $50 (one time cost). The first year a parent built our team the official table from plywood. We eventually put folding legs and rollers on it to make it easier for me to move around. Storage was a huge issue at the school and, with budget cuts, schools are maximizing every inch of space. So this past year, our team built a portable, folding foam table designed by the FLL team, Inventioneers. That has been much easier!
Optional, but recommended, costs
- Team t-shirts
- Swag for kids to trade at tournaments: We did not know about swag for our first tournament, so we went empty handed. The teams really enjoy trading small items (buttons, candy, pencil, whatever you can imagine) at the tournaments. It adds to the excitement of the day. It is also a good way you can share your research project with others.
Other Important Resources To COnsider
Some of these resources may be provided by a PTA, corporate sponsors, team memberships fees, etc:
- Equipment storage cabinet/locker/closet for robots, field kit & mat.
- Locks for storage
- Bins/boxes for storing mission models and transporting the robots to/from events.
- Access to computers on which to load NXT programming software. Children use the software to program the robots. Also a computer to use at the events.
- Flash Drive on which to save programs and transport to events.
- Place to store 4’ x 8’ table
- Place to hold the meetings.
- Transportation of kids to/from the meetings.
- People willing to help – the MOST important element!
Decisions to consider when starting an FLL team
- How many kids you want on your team? A FLL team can be anywhere from 3 to 10 kids.
- How will you select team members, if there are more than 10 candidates? Applications and tryouts are highly recommended, as they are the best way to identify children with the desired interests & characteristics. You are looking for team players who are creative, good builders, good speaking skills and will enjoy building & programming robots.
- Which days & times will you hold your meetings? Keep in mind transportation is a limiting factor for some children.
- Where will your meetings take place? There needs to be enough space for the 4’ x 8’ table with space around it for kids, computers & robot kits.
- How long will your meeting last? Keep in mind the age & attention span of the team members. We recommend at least 4 -6 hours per week of meeting time. That does NOT include coach prep time! You will probably wind up including extra meetings during pre-tournament surge. Personally, I’ve noticed that 2.5 hours was about the limit for meeting length, at least with the younger age group. After 2.5 hours, their productivity starts dwindling.
- Will you conduct any off-season activities / training / club? Can your team members meet in the off-season (Jan – August for the VA/DC FLL region)? If so, consider the following off-season activities:
- Running a club with more kids is an excellent way to train the kids, as well as provide a pool of kids from which to select the competition team.
- Programming assignments in Scratch can be emailed to the kids over the summer break. My experience is that most kids love it. See my Quick Start Tutorial : Scratch Programming. Older kids may like activities in Alice or GameMaker. Scratch, GameMaker & Alice are all free programming environments for kids.
- Lego building/designing activities. Lego Digital Designer is a free tool that allows kids to design their own LEGO creations and then purchase them, if desired.
The Challenge COnsists oF:
The Project: The 3 best resources for understanding and approaching the research project are:
- The project description, which is encompasses the first few pages of a released challenge. Look at the pages 2-5 of the Food Factor Challenge from last year to get an idea. The 2012 Challenge is Senior Solutions and will not be released until early September.
- The Project How-To-Guide, which gives detailed instructions on how to approach the research project portion of the challenge.
- The Project Judging Rubric, which tells you exactly what the judges are looking for during the judging process. Scroll down to the project rubric.
The Robot Game: Teams design, build, program, and test autonomous robots that must perform a series of missions within a 2-1/2 minute time limit. These missions often symbolize solutions to some of problems presented in the Challenge theme and are performed on a standard FLL Field, under a set of rules. Look at the pages 6-22 of the Food Factor Challenge from last year to get a feel for what is involved with the robot game portion.
The children do the work! FLL defines children doing the work as children making all critical decisions in the robot-building, programming, the research project development, and presentation. Does this mean you should stand idly by while your team struggles? Absolutely not! You must be involved, but you cannot be involved in an overtly direct way. Instead of telling the team to “build a gearbox using a worm gear,” you could ask the team to brainstorm ideas to make the robot go slower. Or you could encourage the children to run an experiment that may lead them to explore other options.
You are a facilitator to help your team complete its work and improve the way it works together. One very useful coaching method is to reply to a question with another carefully considered question.
Promoting FLL Core Values & Gracious Professionalism is a must! This should be the most important aspect of the process. Teams are graded on this at the competitions via team interviews and also by “undercover” roving judges. Teamwork is very important!
Promote the Scientific & Engineering (Iterative) processes. With the research project, leverage the team members knowledge of the scientific process while following the Project How-To-Guide . With the robot game, embrace the iterative process. See
There is no right or wrong way… whatever it takes to keep the kids learning & having fun.
Try the divide and conquer approach with a larger team, where kids work in smaller groups of 2-3 to solve problems, create solutions and implement solutions.
Keep the kids actively engaged! No long lectures or you will start losing them. One bored child will do something to distract the group and others will follow quickly.
General Schedule of a season
This will vary based on the region or country in which you live. I live & compete in the VA/DC FLL region. This is the general schedule for that region:
- Early May: Team Registration
- Field Kit & Equipment purchase
- Get an early start on the research project, if possible
- Receive coaches manual shortly after registration
- July – Late August : Field Kits received
- Early September : Official Challenge is released
- 8 weeks to complete the challenge
- Early November (1st & 2nd Weekend) : Regional Tournaments
- Early December (Usually the 1st weekend): State Tournaments
- April : World Championship in St. Louis, Missouri
Get as much done as possible before the challenge release. Once the challenge is released, there are only 8 weeks until regional tournaments (at least in the VA/DC area). Items that can be done before challenge release are:
- Research on the research project topic.
- Field trips to explore and understand the challenge topic, as well as to meet & interview related professionals.
- Teamwork exercises - see the following sites for some good ones
- Once your field kit comes in, build the mission models and learn their placement on the mat.
- Training on building and programming LEGO Mindstorms NXT. There is always something to learn. If your are just getting started with LEGO Mindstorms NXT, see my Quick Start Tutorial : LEGO Mindstorms NXT
The coach (you) and all team members need to know the game rules inside & out, as well as understand all mission details. I suggest dividing the missions up among the team members and have each team member lead an around the table walk-through which will:
- detail the mission(s), the goals and scoring to the other team members.
- identify any trickiness involved in the mission and allow brainstorming of potential solution & ideas as a group.
- will aid them in picking which missions they will attempt to solve. Remember, teams don’t have to do all the missions. The object is to score as many points as possible in 2.5 minutes, so it is important to get the kids thinking about the strategy of which missions to accomplish and how – the biggest bang for the buck. One year, my kids surprised me and decided to take a touch penalty (only a couple of points) for picking up the robot from the far side of the table – after it accomplished its mission – and bringing it back to base. This way they avoided the potentially hazardous trek back and quickly got started on the next mission run. It turned out to be a smart choice!
Shortly after the challenge is released, people will have questions about the robot game, which the game makers & referees will answer on the Robot Game Update page. Make sure to keep up with the Robot Game Updates throughout the competition season. It often contains critical information affecting mission accomplishment & scoring.
Make sure to Practice! Practice! Practice! Rehearse the project presentation
- Time it – keep it under 5 minutes, including setup time.
- Consider providing judges with a script of the presentation which helps the judges follow along. Kids sometimes get nervous, don’t talk loud enough, talk too fast, etc. These things should be ironed out in practice, but that is easier said than done, especially when kids get nervous on competition day.
Rehearse robot missions
- Time the runs – the robot must accomplish everything in 2.5 minutes. Identify areas of the runs where too much time is spent, and ask the kids how they can make those areas of the mission(s)/run(s) faster?
- Last minute changes will happen at the tournament, but keep control – no big changes at all. Kids have to tendency to make haphazard changes when missions are not running quite right at the competition.
- Practice tag-in/tag-out for mission runs (only two members allowed table-side – the rest behind a line.
See the Judging Rubric to learn what the judges are looking for. Note that adults are not to interact, in any way, during the judging processes – the kids do all the work. There should be no signals or cues from any adult. It will count against the team. Also, make sure your team introduces themselves to the judges & provides the team information sheet at the beginning of each judging session. We learned about introductions the hard way, after the fact. Only 3 people are allowed in the judges room – 2 coaches/mentor & 1 historian (video). I reserve those spots for parents who were actively helping me during the competition season. Those adults who go into the judges rooms must fill out a consent form. Awards are given through judges deliberations, and the championship is based equally on the following 3 areas:
Research Project (33%) :
- Teams are responsible for all equipment and props needed for their presentation.
- All equipment and props are the sole responsibility of the team.
- Teams have 1 minute to set-up and 4 minutes to present, so 5 minutes total.
- After the presentation, there will be a period for judges’ questions.
Core Values (a.k.a. Teamwork) (33%):
- At the formal judging session a timed, hands-on activity is given to the team. The judges watch how the children work as a team. After the activity, the judges will interview the kids about their teamwork during the activity, as well as during the competition season.
- Teamwork will also be observed during all other times of the tournament. Undercover judges often walk through the pits and the competition floor and observe team behaviors. Other individuals, such as referees, volunteers, and staff, may report observed team behaviors back to the judges.
- Judges are looking for teams that exhibit excellent FLL Core Values & Gracious Professionalism. Kids may even be ask what these are during judging sessions.
Robot Design / Performance (33%):
In a formal judging session, robot design and programming will be evaluated.
- There is a competition table in each Technical Judging room.
- The kids can discuss & demonstrate important points in the design and programming of their robot.
- Judges will interview the kids on what they did and ask questions about the design & programming of the robot.
- Teams should bring a printout of their programs to the judging session.
- Robot performance during the robot game will also be considered here. From my experience, one of the things the judges look for here is consistency, not just a single high score. So, the champion team does not have to be the team with the highest robot game score, but rather one that consistently performs well and does well on core values and the research project.
Robot Performance awards are completely separate awards, based on robot game scores only. The robot game is run as follows:
- Each team gets one scheduled practice round, which is run exactly like the official competition rounds.
- 3 official competition robot rounds are scheduled. The schedule must be followed closely throughout the day. If the schedule begins running late, breaks will be shortened to make up time.
- During the round, only 2 team members are allowed at the competition table when the robot is running. Team members may switch/tag out at any time.
- At the end of each round, the field condition will be reviewed by the referee with the team. This is the only time the team members can question a scoring decision. Table review and questions are from the team members only and not the coaches. Once the review is complete, no challenges will be accepted.
- Each team’s single best score, from the official robot rounds, will be used to determine the Robot Performance Score Winner.
Note that research project & core values counts for 66%, so just focusing on the robot game only will not be enough to win the champions award.
My tournament checklist
- Team Information Sheet (4 copies)
- Consent forms for all participants (kids & parents)
- All presentation materials to be used in judging sessions – design binders, skits, costumes, posters, etc.
- Robot & Attachments
- Charger, USB Cables, extension cords
- Box to carry robot in
- Parts Kits
- Program Printouts (2 copies)
- Charged laptop (tested with robot)
- Trade Items
- Snacks /Lunches
- Team T-Shirts
- Additional Charged Brick in case on failure
- Flash Drives with current program
- Schedule Copies for you and parents
- Tournament Check
Finally, always remember:
- Keep the learning fun! Kids learn more when they are having fun.
- There is no set way to coach a team. As long as they are learning and having fun, that is an accomplishment!
- Go to the tournament even if you think you are far from ready! The kids will have fun and get experience. Who knows… you may win. The first year I coached, our team had a meeting the day before our first tournament to decide whether to go or not. We had 3 sick kids – 2 who could not come to the tournament. We had to adjust out presentation for missing kids. We felt far from ready. We decided to go and just have fun. We won regionals and went to state!!