Great Minds Robotics Students Win 1st Place in Los Angeles Region Qualifying FLL Tournament

Sunday, November 14, 2010 was an awesome day for FLL Team 4428 – The NXT Generation – a FIRST LEGO League team consisting of 7 students attending the Enhanced Robotics Program at Great Minds Learning Center. Actually, it was an awesome weekend – two competitions (a Local and a Qualifying event), two 1st Place Robot Performance Awards (one in each competition), and a 1st Place Champion’s Award in the Qualifying Tournament, for a total of three awards! Of course, it takes much more than showing up to a competition to win an award – it takes hard work, many hours of training, learning, researching, practicing and solving challenges encountered along the way. It takes teamwork and team spirit. Even then, it’s not easy.

The Team

The NXT Generation (pronounced: “The Next Generation”) is a rookie FLL team sponsored by Great Minds Learning Center. The name was suggested by Great Minds Robotics students, Arsen P. and David P., at an FLL meeting early in the season. It was adopted by a team vote, favored over a number of other suggestions. Several students suggested altering the spelling of “Next” to “NXT”, since the competition uses LEGO Mindstorms NXT robots. This suggestion was immediately accepted by the entire team. Later in the season, team member Eedan S. suggested a slogan – “Building the Future” – which was likewise adopted by the team.

This approach of bringing all ideas to the table and combining the best parts into a final product became a way of solving each and every aspect of this year’s challenge, from the Project to the Robot Game. It was practiced by every team member, and facilitated by coaches Stan and Kristina, and the team captain, Alex L. The success of this synergetic approach was evident this weekend.

Although initially larger, the team’s final size is 7 students: Team Captain and Programmer Alex L., Lead Programmer and Researcher Eedan S., Lead Builder Spencer M., Programmer Ari B., Builder and Researcher Yoadd Z., Programmer Vedant M., and Builder Andrew E. All team members also participated in the Project Presentation, and took turns operating the robot at the competitions, two team members at a time. Regardless of their assigned roles, all team members participated in all aspects of the robot design, robot construction and programming, mission strategy, and project preparation.

Getting ready for the competitions

Starting beginning of September 2010, when the official FLL Challenge for this season – Body Forward – was released, team members met at least once, and often twice per week, for several hours to work on the challenge. In addition, researchers spent time looking up information on their own. Many ideas for robot design were considered; several robot versions were built, adjusted, improved, dismantled, and rebuilt from scratch, incorporating accumulated knowledge and many hours of practice. The final design is awesome – the judges think so too! It is simple, effective, small enough to easily move around the competition field without crashing into various objects, yet large enough to support necessary attachments and accomplish quite a number of missions. The design incorporates use of light sensors and touch sensors, based on concepts students learned in the Enhanced Robotics Program.

First real test – Local Event

Saturday, November 13, 2010, after a practice round at Great Minds Learning Center, it is time for a real test of all the hard work. The NXT Generation competed in a Local Tournament in Newhall, CA, against 15 other teams… and won! Not just won, but won all 3 rounds, with scores of 195 in the first round, 165 in the second, and 195 in the third! We won 1st Place Robot Performance Award, in recognition of Programming and Mechanical Engineering skills of our team.

There was a Qualifying Tournament going on at the same location earlier that day, and the Awards Ceremony was joint. It turns out, the only other team to score 195 points was a team earning 1st Place Robot Performance Award in the Qualifying Tournament. There were 16 teams competing in each tournament; that means we did better than 30 teams, and matched the best team moving on to the Championship. This is great news!

However, we felt that our scores elsewhere – most notably, the Project presentation – were not quite as high as they could be. The team also figured out a way to improve the Robot Game strategy by adding one more mission. So, after the competition, everyone headed back to Great Minds Learning Center in Tarzana, California, for yet another FLL meeting – and, of course, some pizza and dessert to celebrate the First Place Award we just won! The meeting was very productive – in less than 3 hours the team made vast improvements to the Project presentation, and programmed the additional mission. Ready for the Qualifying Tournament on Sunday.

The real deal – Qualifying Event

Sunday, November 14, 2010 is a much more important event. While a team can participate in any number of local or qualifying events, only the first Qualifying Tournament is considered to qualify for a Championship. Local events are really practice rounds – win or lose, the team can still try to qualify in their region’s qualifying event. So this is the “real deal” – losing means this would be our last competition this season. Only 1 out of 4 teams will move on to the Championship.

Imagine our disappointment when the practice round went terribly wrong – half the missions did not work out for us. Why? The team identified a couple of issues: the field setup was slightly off, causing our jig (a device created specifically to start the robot off in the same position every time) to be misaligned, and the lighting conditions were very different, causing our light sensors to malfunction. The jig was an easy enough fix – the team modified the jig in under ten minutes to fit the field setup. The lighting was a much bigger problem. It wasn’t just different than what the robot was programmed for -it was inconsistent across the field, due to sunlight coming through the windows and causing some areas of the field to be “lit up”, while others were “normal”. So, the robot worked fine on the “normal” areas, and malfunctioned on the “lit up”ones. The team did not have a good solution – the sun moves, the three competition rounds are spaced out throughout the day, and the team is rotated between the two available competition tables. Too many variables to make on-the-go adjustments. Sensor calibration would not work either, since the lighting is inconsistent across the same competition field. This is just a practice round, but the outcome was definitely not a promising one…

Not willing to give up due to some unscheduled sunshine, the team put in an amazing performance during the Project presentation, and gave an equally impressive Teamwork interview. The judges were very impressed – we didn’t know yet just how impressed they were. It was time for lunch, and then a bit more practice before the main competition rounds started.

Round one was a repeat of the Practice round – we scored 90 points… interestingly, that placed us second, with the top team scoring 120 points. The “sunshine effect” was still a big issue, and the team did not have a good solution to it. It seemed all was lost… well, at least as far as getting 1st place goes.

Second round was again very similar, and we scored only 85 points. This was the highest score in the second round, so we were still second place. At this point, it looked like many teams had trouble with the table setup, not just us – scores were very low across the board – far lower than we saw in Saturday’s competition. Only two teams scored above 100 points, and only once per team (out of 3 rounds). Our team members talked to a number of judges about the table setup. We also noticed some issues with training tables, some of which the judges corrected. However, the judges insisted the tables are set up properly, and that we should expect table set up to be slightly different from one competition location to another.

It then occurred to the team that some missions can be run using only odometry – navigating the robot with precise movements – no light sensors, therefore no “sunshine problem”. We booted up a laptop, and in under 15 minutes the team programmed a backup mission that did not rely on the light sensors. It would not be enough to get 1st place, but it would be enough to ensure we kept 2nd place. Nice job, quick and efficient. Demonstrating true FLL spirit, our team was ready for the third – and final – round, with renewed confidence. We agreed the new program is just a backup plan – try the more precise, light sensor driven program first – after all, the “sunshine problem” moves with the sun position throughout the day…

In the words of Louis Pasteur, a French chemist and microbiologist, “Chance favors the prepared mind”. The sun graciously moved (well, rather, the earth rotated slightly…), resolving the “sunshine problem”. Our robot worked flawlessly, with no need for a backup program. Out of the possible 240 points that the team had programmed solutions for, we scored 210, surpassing all other teams at this competition (the next best score was 120), and our own best score of 195 from Saturday’s competition! The team, the parents, the judges – everyone was excited with this amazing, unexpected performance.

We won 1st place in Robot Performance category with this last mission. After seeing our score on the scoreboard, we had a good idea that we’ll get 1st place. What we didn’t know, and what came as a complete surprise, is that our Project performance and Teamwork interview impressed the judges so much, that we also won the 1st Place Champion’s Award – highest award possible in the entire competition. Awesome!

Many Thanks are in order

All members of the team performed fantastic – thank you guys! We would like to specifically recognize Eedan S. and Yoadd Z., who were the robot operators in the winning round, and were also largely responsible for writing the backup mission, and adjusting the jig to fit the competition tables. Their performance was outstanding. We would also like to recognize Spencer M., who repaired the robot and attachments several times during the day, as it was necessary. Spencer is our youngest team member, and one of the best builders on the team.

We would like to thank the parents for their amazing support and dedication. Without you, we could not have achieved such fantastic results. We know it takes a lot of effort to make sure your kids are making it to classes and practice sessions. As you watched our team win top awards in the two events they participated in so far, I’m sure you agree it’s all worth it. The awards represent far more than just accomplishing missions in a competition challenge – these awards represent valuable skills and lessons learned that will stay with your kids throughout their lives. These awards represent success in future endeavors, and confidence to take on the challenges of tomorrow. We thank you for giving your kids the opportunity to be part of Great Minds Robotics and FIRST LEGO League.

Finally, we would like to thank the FLL competition staff and volunteers that make these events possible. FIRST LEGO League is an awesome program, and we’re very happy to be a part of it.

We learned a valuable lesson

Sometimes things do not go as planned. Sometimes sun doesn’t want to cooperate. Sometimes field tables are not setup as expected. What lesson can we learn from this? Expect the unexpected. Be prepared. Have a backup plan.

Our team could not have foreseen the “sunshine problem”; but it could have anticipated “some unknown issue that might cause the light sensors to malfunction”. The team should have examined that possibility during preparation. A simple question raised for discussion: “What is our backup plan if the main plan just doesn’t work for some reason?” would have started the much-needed brainstorming process in search of a backup plan. It’s great to be able to program a backup mission in under 15 minutes; it’s far better to have it ready because it was written in anticipation of unknown problems because the team thought it through during practice.

We won the Qualifying Tournament, but there is much work to be done before the December 18, 2010 Championship. We shall not be at the mercy of the “sunshine problem”, or similar calamities, in the Championship. We have just over a month to prepare – we’ll be ready. We look forward to competing in the Championship Event, and perhaps moving on to FLL World Festival, April 27-30, 2011, in St Louis, Missouri.

Go Team!

5 Responses to “Great Minds Robotics Students Win 1st Place in Los Angeles Region Qualifying FLL Tournament”

  1. WOW! Critical thinking at its best wins the day for you. I love the detail in this write-up. I can feel the pressure… “What the…?! We’re fighting with the SUN?! You’ve GOT to be kidding me!” Nice. Nice. Nice.

  2. Quite an auspicious start! First competition, multiple first place awards, AND the Champion’s Award. You have set the bar very high for the future. Proper education, dedication, anticipation (“Expect the unexpected”), and team work will inevitably lead to victory.

    Congratulations!

  3. MrsG says:

    CONGRATS! It was no fluke… you worked hard and deserved the win!

  4. Alon SHwartz says:

    These two days were simply inspiring. I’ve been in the software business for more than 20 years and have a software company myself. I’ve been through challenging deadlines, unforeseen issues, and huge business and technical challenges, but this is my job and I’m not a kid.

    Watching these kids fight for every point, every minute of each competition, dramatically improving their performance, literally overnight, and being creative under pressure, was inspiring.

    We came in as the underdogs and came out as winners. I know that every child is special to their parents, but not every child is a future leader with potential to change the world. I believe the NXT Generation team is the next generation leader.

    I want to thank Stan, Anna, and Kristina for their amazing dedication throughout the year and the competition. And now, let’s get ready for the next phase.

    Alon and Orit Shwartz

  5. Alexandra Skierso says:

    Thank you for an inspiring weekend! It was wonderful to see the kids work so well together under pressure. It was fabulous to see them work their hardest to place and WIN! They were put on the spot, had to think on their feet, and had to overcome natural and man-made surprises. With the patient and focused guidance of Stan and Kristina and the support of the entire Great Minds family, the team was able to succeed. Awesome Job! Kol Hakavod! Molodietz! Congratulations!