Saturday, March 4, 2017

Robot Update #3 - The Robot Game

The robot game is the 'hook' for First Lego League.  You put ROBOT and LEGO in the same sentence and it gets a small child's attention!  It only counts for 1/6 of the overall score but it is what is most important to most teams as it is the public face of the competition.  Everything else is in private judging rooms and even us coaches don't get to go in.  And when 1/3 of the score is that 'gracious professionalism' I talked about yesterday, it is hard to quantify.

Two big guys in blue?  Brainstormers being refs at States
One thing... they said they ALWAYS waited until the
end of the buzzer for each team before stopping the
robot!
So the robot game is a big thing.  My older team never cracked higher than #7 in the state in this pursuit of perfection.  They almost had won their last year but missed it by a second and the head ref stopped their robot from crossing the line at a buzzer - they would have had the world record that day if he let the robot go to the end of the buzzer like the other refs.  They won the gracious professionalism award that day as they picked up their robot and walked over to him and shook his hand and without fuss, walked away.  It was noted that they had some sort of tremendous robot issue all day (broken cable with intermittent contact) - managed to figure it out and fix it and then were stopped from letting their robot perform and win the top award.  And they behaved like the champions they had been the year before.  Honorably.  I saw it and knew their hearts were broken but they didn't show it.

We all learned so much from that experience.  Both teams were there and the heartbreak was turned into an analysis of what happened and how could they engineer things to not have it happen again.  It is a the basis of our process we use now to guide the kids through their development and what we will be releasing as the video series.  And the little guys - they took it to heart.

Simplicity, design for anyone to drive, testing until it is perfect all the time, and training.  It has worked for them so well.  After that year watching their older siblings heartbreak, they have won the robot performance award every year at a qualifier and second in the state every year.  Sometimes they even added the for-fun elimination rounds to that haul.  But this year was time for their own heart break to redefine themselves.

Very proud that all the members of the team drive the robot - amazing
amount of preparation for all to drive at that level.
This year saw a robot game that was a bit unusual, partially a product of a new head of that part of the competition, I hear.  And there will undoubtedly be changes for next year as there were two things that didn't go well.  The first was that the tasks the robot had to do were too dependent.  So your robot might have to go out from base and do something to a model to release a piece, bring that piece back and then go out and place that piece somewhere else.  Only after all three conditions were accomplished did you get points for that.  And there were some dozen things like that in two and a half minutes.  Complicated and full of failure points, it is a plastic toy system for gosh sakes and not a machined aluminum aircraft!  Usually each year there are tasks that don't require sophisticated navigation and dependences that a team can accomplish - especially new teams - that even though their point total is low, they have a sense of a good job done and accomplishment and want to strive to do better the next year.  This year, there wasn't and that was a disaster.  A typical year could find low scores at 150-250 and high scores in the 500-600s.  This year, almost half the teams at qualifiers didn't break 30 points or even get any points.  Zero.  My eyes popped out of my head at our qualifier as the scores started showing up.  Zero, zero, 10, zero... not good.  I am not about giving fake awards to kids, but some points to validate their hard work feels better than zero - even if 100 points was the same result as zero.

Then the second problem.  There was a mission on the field (first time I remember) that if a team accomplished it, the team on the table butting up to it that it straddled got the same points - for doing nothing.  Usually the mission that straddles the two tables is to get it first and deny the other team the points.  This new twist wouldn't be too bad if the point totals in the game are high and the points given to the team are low....

But this year, that mission was 60 points.  In a year where the average score at a qualifier was 30-50 points, that was a disaster.   You can't move on to the States unless you are in the top 50% of scores at the match and then the other judged things rank teams for moving on.  Sooooo.... at a qualifier, if there was one team who could perform this hard 60 point task - it would totally screw up the rankings by more than doubling other team scores.

And yes, that is what happened at our qualifier.  We could do that task and expected that teams would be overall doing better because our team was just pouring the work on and didn't know that the dependences were really screwing up teams.  Our top score that day was 230.  Every time we ran our robot the team next to us would jump up and down and scream and actually come over to ours after the match and hug and high five them.  This massive game design mistake was allowing us to mess up the order of advancement.   It felt terrible.  We won the day's robot performance fair and square and by a very large margin but it was a weird victory.  We had inadvertently screwed over other teams and could become a fatality of the same thing ourselves.

And then we got ready for the State competition and started looking at scores being posted from competitions around the world.  Europe always wins as they let kids 9-16 compete there so those extra two years in age always crushes everyone.  We had the 3rd highest score in the world.  And we were improving rapidly based on the learnings at that first competition.  The kids were getting really excited - they could crack the world record at the states and maybe even get the chance to go on as their project was very strong.  I couldn't keep them away from the house - every night a few of them begged to come over and practice.

So as every competition goes, there is always something that happens bad.  It is best score of 5 trials and we had our moments of stress - one of the attachments went missing for a match.  The kids did over 150 practice runs to get their driving choreography right so they could maximize the time the robot had to do its job and least time in base.  They had to finish with a few seconds to spare as the robot had to climb a wall and not touch the matt.  It was worth over 40 points and if they took too long in base - they would loose that score.  They were up to 312 points as a top score they could do and were hitting it at home.  We were hitting in the mid 200s every time that day (sometimes nerves slow you down) and were looking for that perfect run where everything went right and the robot climbed in time.  Well - they got it... kinda...twice.  One piece was judged to have fell on the line so we didn't get the points for it.  282.  Amazing.   A top 10 score in the world and should be enough to take home the #1 robot performance trophy for the first time ever as we were way ahead of the rest of the teams.

Then another score came up - 285.  Three points short.  They were crushed.  And then the realization that the team that put it up had a top score potential of about 230.  They had been given the 60 points by another team.  A week later, the team who walked away with the #1 trophy admitted that they hadn't actually put the points up themselves on their You Tube channel after some team pointed out that the video didn't show the same number of points.  At least they were gracious about it.   And I had to console my team that at least they had gotten the #2 trophy - there was a team (and we know them) that was the second highest score earned and didn't get anything and that was so unfair to them.  So this year, so many of the teams felt hollow both ways.  And even worse, so many new teams did so poorly that they might not come back.  The coach of our sister team let us know that our guidance and help had pushed them so high and she realized that if we hadn't done that - they wouldn't be back and the ball wouldn't be rolling for so many kids they can reach with us.  I am pretty darn sure this won't be repeated again.



The parents take it the worst, of course.  There have been many bottles of wine and much sorrow.  I have spent time turning the experience into 'drive' with the kids.  They are building a metal robot and learning the next level competition and going to events with the big guys.  Focusing on getting better at everything.  Realizing that if their project was just 'that much better' they would have moved on.   They keep asking me about the topic for next year as they are desperate to start really early (they never got why I wanted to before).  They are focused on becoming part of the Brainstormers next year after their season is done and doing all the learning they need now.   I can see that the hunger to succeed has ratcheted up another level in all of them.

That is what I have been trying to tell my parents, it is part of the lesson - to truly become excellent, you have to fail and if you successfully resist fixating on the 'others' and look inside and strive to be the best and look for areas of improvement - then you will succeed.  If it comes too easy, you don't work so hard, you always hold back as good enough.  It is the journey that is the reward not the trophy on the shelf.

And I mentioned to the parents that their time will come and it will all jive for them at once - I don't know when, but it will.  They were in the last group to run that day and the 20+ judges had come out for the ceremony.  And they crowded around only one table to watch a robot with huge smiles on their faces.  Guess which one?

So back to embroidery.  If the kids can look failure and disapointment in the face and get right back up on the robot - what is stopping you from designing or stitching your casket?   :-)


1 comment:

  1. Wow, fascinating posts about the lego league. A new world for me. Interesting to see the way the kids cope with the non-level playing field, and how you are able to help them use the experience. You are a great coach!

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