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From the FLL Floor, Part 1: What IS an FLL Team?

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lego _teamWe interviewed coaches at the 10th annual Pittsburgh Region

al FLL competition. In Part 1 of our analysis, we look at what an FLL team REALLY is.

Every year, the CMU National Robotics Engineering Center in Pittsburgh proudly hosts more than 70 teams of middle school students competing in the annual FIRST LEGO League competition. (

This year, we wanted to find out more, and took to the floors with pen and paper. We interviewed as many coaches and teams as we could, looking to find out what makes an FLL team tick at a regional competition. The answers we got were far more varied and creative than we ever expected!

In Part 1 of this series, we look at what an FLL team really is. Sure, it’s a group of up to 10 students with a mentor and a robot, but beyond that, the inner workings of teams are wildly different across organizations.

In fact, the idea of a team being a single unit of 10 students turned out to be quite naïve. Of the 24 coaches we interviewed, representing 30 teams of students, not a single one had a simple “team of 10 students”.

Some teams brought 10 members representing a significantly larger body who had worked on the project in varying capacities over the course of the season – a “travel squad” so to speak. Other teams were, in fact, not a single team at all, but several independent sub-teams of 2-3 students, dividing the team’s 3 scored rounds among them so each sub-team got one “live” round.

Even among the teams that employed more conventional groupings, nearly every team had a clear division of labor between students who worked on the board competition, and students who worked on the presentation. To a lesser degree, building was frequently separated from programming, but ultimately the “programmers” needed to meet up with the “builders” in ways that the “presenters” never did.

Teams were made up of students in a very wide age range – 3rd grade through 10th (the age limit is 14, but some students skipped grades or are in nontraditional programs). Moreover, students of very different ages were sometimes present on the same team.

Logistically speaking, most teams were extracurricular programs, whether school- or community-affiliated. Groups typically met once or twice a week for about 90 minutes through most of the season, then accelerated into a “crunch” mode as the competition neared, expanding the schedule to include Saturdays and longer contiguous work sessions.

The groups that were able to conduct their FLL activities as part of a class typically did so as an elective, or as a project unit in a science class, and met more intensively and/or regularly, according to the schedule of those classes.

So, what is an FLL team? An excellent example of the 21st Century workplace.

FLL teams have adopted a broad range of custom-fitted work schedules, roles, and environments in order to meet a common challenge with very different sets of resources. FIRST LEGO League is clearly a stellar venue for promoting and supporting 21st Century skills, in a very high-fidelity, authentic environment.

Coming up in Part 2: What does an FLL team learn?

Written by Ross Higashi

December 8th, 2009 at 1:41 am