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Thursday, August 12, 2010


Does a robot competition count as a competitive sport?  Absolutely.

After eight to 16 weeks of intense fun and preparation, youth between 9 and 14 years old from all over Rhode Island convene at Roger Williams University every January to compete against anywhere from 48 to 52 teams. Here, instead of seeing children lounging about during lunch, you will see youth focused on fixing their robots and making last minute changes to their presentation while devouring their pizza. This is the Rhode Island FIRST LEGO League tournament.

The Competition

Like the iconic interlocking parts of Legos that manage to make up astounding structures, the skills, research and teamwork that teams put together yield equally impressive results. Each year, the FIRST LEGO League puts out a real-world challenge that consists of two parts: the Project and the Robot Game. The challenge ranges from designing nanotechnology constructions to developing alternative energy sources, and solving transportation problems, offering young people an opportunity to think and suggest solutions to issues professionals research on a daily basis.

This year’s project, to be released on September 3rd, is a test of biomedical engineering innovation. Participants will have to research injury repair, genetic predispositions and body potential, and use their findings to create both a presentation and a robot that must overcome multiple challenges. Sound like child's play?


The FIRST LEGO League has grown significantly over the past twelve years, growing in team participation by over one thousand teams each year, and expanding to include teams from fifty-four countries. As teams advance, young people not only get the unique experience of solving real-world challenges, but also the opportunity to widen their perspectives to include diverse problem-solving methods and populations.

In Rhode Island

Local participation is gaining ground annually, and thanks to the connectedness of our local community, has gotten substantial support from local engineers, scientists and other professionals.  But the most important aspect is the program’s impact on the youth.

Rhode Island regional director, FLL coach, teacher, and mother, Rebekah Gendron has seen first hand what participating in the FLL competition can do for children’s appreciation and understanding of science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM), and learning in general, particularly those who get started at the young age of nine. Not only do these students tend to do better in STEM subjects than their peers, but they also tend to pursue careers in STEM areas. From her experience as a teacher, she believes that, “When they see these things in the real world, and it makes sense, then the things that seemed abstract before, like circumference or simple machines, become much clearer” back in the classroom.

However, this is not just about enhancing learning and problem solving skills - it is also about learning to work well with others and developing stage presence.  Students are evaluated on their research presentation, robot presentation, robot performance, and their teamwork. Gendron says it best, “It is really a complete package [of an extracurricular activity], not just robot wars.”

Accessible to All

But all too often, not every child has an equal opportunity to participate in these kinds of programs.  The FIRST LEGO League is open to any 9 to 14 year old, regardless of school, club, or economic condition. Although it costs approximately $800 to start a brand new team, hardship grants are readily available for new teams earlier in the registration period. With a bit of planning, any child can take part in this life-changing program.

Interested in forming a team? Registration can be completed online at the FIRST LEGO League website, and is open until mid-September. There are many ways to get involved with FIRST LEGO League, including but not limited to volunteering, sponsoring, and mentoring. Contact Gina Valdes for more information.


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