AMES, Iowa -- Maybe it’s the matching T-shirts, mascots and research presentations that make the FIRST LEGO League (FLL) unique. Or maybe it’s the excitement that triggered one boy to “dream about the mission.” Or maybe it’s the competing 4-H’er-built robots.
In any case, says Iowa State University Extension program specialist Holly Bignall, “If you’re interested in robots or programming, if you just want to work with a team or if you want to help in the community, you can find a niche.” And you just might help create a future scientist.
The international program involves more than 100,200 kids worldwide and engages them in problem solving, teamwork and learning through competition. In September a challenge is released with a theme and set of missions. Teams of 9- to 14-year-olds register and begin building their robots, programming their missions and researching topics related to the theme. In January, the teams compete at the state level and are judged on teamwork, the robotic missions, a presentation of their research project and an interview about their robot’s technical design.
In Iowa, interest has increased dramatically. Last year FLL hosted a 70-team tournament and had 21 teams on the waiting list. This year, with the theme of “Climate Connections,” 145 teams competed at six regional competitions, with 72 advancing to the state competition on the ISU campus Jan. 17. Included in the mix of teams is an increasing number of 4-H groups and clubs who have sought and found support from ISU Extension, parents, community members and businesses who see the unique benefits FLL offers.
“4-H builds life skills, and this is a perfect opportunity for kids to learn all the things that we believe in 4-H youth development,” said Janet Martin, a 4-H youth development field specialist who helped start a Tipton FLL team.
David Seilstad, another 4-H youth development field specialist, echoes Martin as a fellow and excited first-timer who sees how FLL directly complements many 4-H values. Seilstad currently is working with three teams from Harrison County.
“Kids are used to seeing the winning steer, the winning rabbit or the restored rocker or tractor, but this is a whole different interaction, and it’s exciting,” he said. “They are learning life skills, teamwork, communication, citizenship and leadership, which are all tied in to what we have to do to compete in FLL, just like 4-H. The outcome is the same because the kids get to shine in ways they didn’t before.”
In addition to life skills, Bignall sees FLL as an opportunity to pursue the new 4-H science, engineering and technology (SET) mission mandate. Unveiled in summer 2008, 4-H SET’s goal is to increase youth interest in these growing fields behind the slogan, “One Million New Scientists. One Million New Ideas.”
“4-H has a long history of youth development, and we’re in an ideal position to take that a step further and get youth excited and passionate about it outside of school,” Bignall said. With that approach, 4-H SET directly complements what FLL hopes to do through its competitions — inspire and encourage.
FLL introduces kids to these areas through fun and educational activities and contests. It may be hard to comprehend the competitions on paper, but Bignall and Seilstad agree one only needs to see the excitement and learning that goes on to realize the value. After returning home from his first regional competition in December with a first-place team and two honorable mentions, Seilstad affirmed the day a success even without their rankings.
“It was a wonderful day and that’s our goal in any 4-H event,” he said. “When kids come away on fire and see themselves as more capable and excited about what they can learn, we call it a very successful day.”
For more information about FLL, visit www.isek.iastate.edu. For more information about how to get involved in the program through 4-H, contact your county ISU Extension office.