Author Archives: Graham

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Some people say that Lego is just for kids. I have to disagree.

Even though my youngest has a sizeable collection, I have always enjoyed re-building some of his sets. When he was about ten, he threw all of his Lego into one giant plastic tub, Star Wars mixing with City, blended with Power Miners and other random sets. "Shouldn't you keep them together in their sets?" I pleaded with him at the time.

"It's my Lego, I can do what I want," was his reply at the time.

A year later, he decided that he only wanted to collect certain themes and was keen to sell off surplus sets on eBay. So he asked me to help him sort out the big box. Talk about a labour of love - and not surprisingly I ended up doing a lot of this sorting and checking parts off on model booklets by myself. But it was strangely soothing and therapeutic. It did mean that a lot of classic sets got rebuilt even though they ended up on display around the house as some sort of tribute to my son's rejuvenation at being interested in something other than Minecraft or basketball.

He never really got into Lego Technic though. Maybe if he had, I might have seen the learning potential a bit sooner. I was ICT AP at Woodville Gardens at the time of the big eBay sort and I was quite slow about getting into robotics. I recognised its importance and I had an amazing colleague, Mel Andrews, who pioneered the way with RoboCup and then entering a team in the First Lego League for the first time. I wished I'd taken more time to take notice of her work in this area - I took it for granted that her skills were up to the task (and they were) and that I could focus my attention elsewhere. She is a great FLL Coach as shown when her team took home the Project trophy at the SA Regional during the 2016 Animal Allies season.

So, when I arrived at Prospect North Primary as the new AP in STEM, Marg, my principal reminded me that it would be great if our school could get into Lego League. And that triggered one of the biggest learning curves of my career, and triggered an obsession that has held my attention since. I am not going to rehash that journey in this post as I have already explored it in detail through the three posts;  My FLL Journey - The Rookies Make A Start, The Rookies Go To Regionals and The Rookies Go To Nationals. The whole thing was such a powerful experience and I am still trying to make sense of why it seems to have such a lasting impact on me.

View from behind of team and competition area in Sydney, 2017.

I know it had a very powerful impact on that team of students. I know this because I had a visit from two students on day one of Term One demanding to know if and when I was planning to hold a First Lego League meeting to get 2018 underway. Never mind that the next season was still seven months away - these two badly wanted to see if the team who experienced unexpected success in 2017 could continue in 2018.

So I called a meeting. And it is testament to the buzz that FLL and the 2017 team's success that I had 47 students turn up to that meeting in the first week of school, with 31 of those students being girls. The remaining H2Flo members organised a separate meeting to create an ambitious roadmap. They wanted the team to stay together - only two members had gone onto high school so they determined they wanted to recruit suitable new members. It was an amazing meeting driven by the students - I wasn't the only one who had developed a Lego obsession.

To be accurate, it's not really a Lego obsession with the actual product. It's more an obsession with the whole First program and the ideals and opportunities that exist within it. The robots are like the reason to go deeper on a whole bunch of other important and deeply engaging opportunities. It's about self improvement, it's about group improvement and it's about challenging yourself with new learning. And that applies as equally to the coach as to the student members.

The team resolved to meet regularly. Two members, Anna and Minjung, decided to make the 2018 journey the subject of a personal learning investigation. They reflected on the whole experience, especially the National Tournament and decided to put observations into action. An example of this was the adoption of a new name. They noticed that many of the highly successful teams, ones vying to earn the coveted invitations to the International Tournaments, had permanent names not linked to the current season's themes. It's like a statement, we are here to stay, we are not a one season wonder. So the name Synergetix was born - a hybrid of the word synergy (a quality that the team felt in its best moments especially in Core Values based activity) and robotics, and stylised with an -ix suffix.

They listed out their ambitions.

  • Achieve a high placing at November Regional and qualify for the State Championship.
  • Place high enough at State to earn an invitation to the December National Championship again .
  • Find sponsorship (team t-shirts, promotions, travel containers, travel and accommodation).
  • Strive to qualify for International / Asia Pacific Championships.

To work towards those ambitions, they set out targets to bring some of these to possible fruition. The team wanted a website, some social media presence, some promotion of their progress so far. They wanted to get better at coding, to start thinking about the next season's theme and the ramifications for their research project, they wanted to recruit new members who would add to the team chemistry but bring new individual skills and to help mentor others outside the school. They found these new members who initially looked like rabbits caught in the headlights but now feel, in the words of one recruit, like they have been part of the team all along.

In my role at the school, I have been leaning on their expertise a fair bit. So far this year, the team has run workshops for adults both at a Partnership Closure Day (over 20 adults coming through) and a STEM Lead Learning Day where they presented to 30 more adults and ran them through the basics of Mindstorms programming and the broad goals of the First Lego League program. They have been amazing ambassadors in that regard. My former colleague, Mel now in a new role as STEM Coordinator at a new school, brought her students from Challa Gardens Primary down to gain some experience and insight into FLL. This is their first taste of mentoring - a question that is often asked in Core Values sessions is how have you helped others with Gracious Professionalism®?

Challa Gardens students getting a crash course in EV3 coding.

Opportunities have opened up where the student's FLL experiences have provided a skillbase and a narrative to engage with others. I was contacted by the Rotary Club of Prospect about the possible donation of hand held microscopes. Being a disadvantaged school and a STEM school at the same time, this was a generous and on-point offer that I gratefully accepted. But I thought about how to turn this into a more impactful connection and recruited Anna and Minjung who had been spending time thinking about the possibility of sponsorship. I asked if they would be prepared to host the Rotary dignitaries at an assembly and be their tour guides around our school. Anna suggested that perhaps that they could chat to them about our FLL team and give them a formal letter asking for support, and they would also create a certificate of appreciation.

Well, after a couple of postponements due to swimming and Harmony Day, we hosted the President Lynne and the Team Leader for Youth Projects Barry at the assembly and the girls did an awesome job. They showed the visitors through a display of the journey (you can see it here on the website) and introduced them at the assembly with confidence and respect. Lynne was so impressed that she rang me later that day to invite any interested team members to a Rotary dinner meeting on the following Wednesday focussed on Rotary Youth Leadership projects. This was a real honour and the students were asked to bring their display for other Rotary members to peruse. Four students went, including two of the new recruits and it was a great evening where the kids got to hear from and then meet some high achieving young people including Jerida, a young woman well on her way to becoming a specialist eye doctor. We started off hoping for a sponsorship possibility but have ended up with something better than simple funding - seeing how opportunities to connect with others can lead to students pursuing their goals and uncovering talents or possibilities that might have been previously unnoticed or underdeveloped.

Talking to Jerida, the inspiring young doctor with Synergetix members at the Rotary dinner.

So, despite the fact that the new season doesn't officially start until August, this team is really striving for success and the novelty hasn't worn off ... at all. I can't help myself either - by trying to be the best coach I sometimes overstep the mark but this team are good at pushing back in a respectful way if my vision isn't aligning with theirs. For example, Anna said that she had created a logo for the Instagram account (still needing some content before being publicised) but I thought that I knew what the team wanted and created my own idea over the Easter weekend using some of my son's left over Lego. I built, I photographed, I photoshopped and created something that I thought looked pretty cool. But the frowns and measured comments I got when I showed the group told me that it wasn't what they wanted. And when Anna showed what she had created on her phone I had to concede that her effort was a lot better than mine!

Not quite what we had in mind, Mr. Wegner.

This is more like it.

The website is now up and running. I give up most of my break times to help supervise the team as they practice using the Animal Allies kit we purchased at half price from First Australia. I watch YouTube videos in the evening to try and identify the sweet spot between what they managed to do in 2017 and what they saw was possible from teams like Project Bucephalus, Sussex Smashers and our local gurus Roboroos. I play around in Photoshop trying out t-shirt designs with different fonts and bring them back for the team to approve or discard. I even took an EV3 kit home over the Christmas holidays to try robot building for myself, looking for elusive plans to create a box robot.

So, why? There has to be a bigger payoff than just playing with Lego and helping kids ready themselves for a competition. Why has this bug bitten so hard? What is it that I struggle to articulate even to myself?

I know the FLL program has raised the profile of STEM around our school - but it's one of many initiatives and opportunities (I haven't even touched Digital Leaders, Kids Teach STEM Conference, Junior Lego League, Robogals or StemNation in this post) that the school provides.

Maybe it's the growth in these kids as they gain confidence and skills. Maybe it's because they start to dream and imagine possibilities that they didn't know of before. Maybe that's all true for me too. It could be that just by being the facilitator, students can do things that are well beyond my own personal capabilities. Maybe it's being involved in something that is global, that has recent history and tradition, something that puts robotics and STEM on the same adulated platform as a major sports event. Maybe it's all those things and more.

All I know is that when Twitter alerts me to an exclusive preview of the Into Orbit ™ robot game, beamed from the  FIRST World Championships currently happening in Houston, USA, I am as keen as anyone to check it out and speculate about how it might be used later this year. Through social media, I can check out those teams we saw in action in Sydney about to experience the height of their own FLL Journey. I can read the coaches forums and hopefully glean advice that can help me help my team so that they feel they had the best shot to try and achieve those goals and ambitions. Because as Professor Michael Heimlich said to the assembled masses at the Sydney Championship, and I paraphrase, "Don't let anyone tell you that you're just playing with toys when you are involved in FLL. You are developing skills to become the future engineers and future scientists of our nation."

If my current obsession helps towards that goal, then it surely is a good thing.

In the busyness that makes up a school day, it can be easy for me to forget things that the rest of the world are noticing and acknowledging. It happened today for me with International Women's Day - but I did get reminded by a couple of students. I was in the library running a Lego Recess Time activity and a group of my dedicated Digital Leaders were helping me put together this year's lanyards in preparation for some student led workshops we are running as a school for educators from our partnership schools next Tuesday. The group consists of four Year 5 girls who were some of the shining lights of my 2017 Digital Leaders program - always wanting to contribute and participate. They stepped up as leaders for our Junior Lego League teams, and designed the t-shirts for their respective teams. One of this group enjoys Python coding in her spare time; another is already thinking of her future high school based on STEM opportunities.

Anyway, as I helped them cut out badge inserts and slide them into the plastic sleeves, one of the girls looked across at her friends and casually said, "Today's International Women's Day, isn't it?" I can't remember who confirmed it but it did trigger a little reminder in me that my job as an educator is to try as best as I can to ensure that these girls get every opportunity they need, to make sure that their talents aren't overlooked and that no doors are closed to them. As I said to the group of leaders at the SVA Hub Day at Mypolonga Primary School on Monday, it could be construed as patronising coming from me as a male educator but I am proud of the high participation of girls in the STEM opportunities I have set up at Prospect North Primary. When I held a meeting a few weeks ago for interested students for Lego League, 31 of the 47 attendees were female. Daily, two Year 6 girls find me in the school to share plans for their 2018 FLL team, wanting to be proactive, strive for improvement and high standards, and in control of their destiny.

In my own small way, I am trying to #PressForProgress and hope that these Digital Leaders giving me a hand today end as adults who can barely remember a much less fair world. And if you head over to the official website, there is an image with statements that all educators can find it easy to get behind.

If you want to be patted on the back for being a groovy, totally plugged in 21st Century educator, don't bother going to read Dean Groom's blog. But you value some authentic alternative views and some clever metaphorical language twisting like I do, then his latest post is well worth the read.

I've been harping on the concept of personalised learning and how the version being championed by US philanthropists sounded nothing like the version I know and then Stephen Downes pointed to an article that was very enlightening.

 

So Dean's post was ringing some of the same bells and in the spirit of old skool Web 2.0, I thought I would leave him a comment but not wanting to lose those delicate personal threads of consciousness, i thought I would re-post it here. Plus, I assume it is currently in "pending approval purgatory" and he might not deem it worthy to approve!

Dean,

You always give me food for thought and much of what you describe in this post rings true for me. It doesn’t mean that I’ve been brave (or smart) enough to not get caught up in the frenzy sometimes, but when you shine the light on an object in a certain way, suddenly aspects of that object can be more easily defined – or as the saying goes, seen in a new light.

Via Twitter you pointed to a post about educelebrities that also ties in closely with aspects addressed. We have a number of these down under – some have channelled into something with broad appeal to the teaching population, and others have gone all out to deliberately cultivate their educelebrity status. The latter can be found amongst the “founders” that you reference, and from my vantage point it appears like they are mining the Australian teaching landscape for their own betterment. They write articles for ACEL, they win awards and they cross-reference each other because circular self-amplification super-boosts their online presence. Maybe I am just jealous and maybe many teachers find their insights and ideas to be inspiring and useful. I just wonder what happened to just doing a good job at your own school and letting good practice speak for itself.

The personaliSed learning reference is extremely important and one to watch unfold this year for sure. There is the definition of personaliSed learning that sits inside my head and has been part of what I tried to enable for my students for at least twenty of the thirty years I have been teaching. (I have a DECD certificate acknowledging my loyalty for that period of time). But the new EdTech enhanced version possibly defined by its American Z is a new beast that promises so much but when you look closer, it is the opposite of what most progressive educators (which I like to think that I strive to be) want for their students. PersonaliSed learning for me involves student choice, students helping define the direction of the learning and students showcasing their learning in ways that are personal. Education technology’s role in this scenario is an enabler allowing the student access to information that they want, connection to resources and people that can help them in that learning and to create their own solution / product / showcase. PersonaliZed learning wants the technology to be in control, pushing or elevating the student through pre-determined content and concepts – Khan Academy without the choice is what springs into my head. Like you point out, the Z version promises what the s version has been shown to be capable of but reduces it all down to (in your words) “various modular ‘fun’ activities under the trending veneer of gamification.”

As for your description of the blockchain transcript, it sounds eerily like the e-portfolio concept of over a decade ago. I wasted time researching some that idea back in the day and we can see how it has really taken off in schools … or not. Like questionable fashion, even edtech ideas can be recycled in new packaging and touted as new and original. Of course, none of this means that I am any better than the average educator in sorting through the gift shop paraphernalia.

Beware the Z.

Ernie Smith on blogging:


Perhaps the world has moved past the idea of merely having a webpage that’s your own, and nobody else’s. Perhaps we’re expected to do everything, instead, on social media or in someone else’s walled garden.

But what if a lot of bloggers were never really in it just for the importance of being on top of the cultural pulse? What if the goal was to share a piece of ourselves through the mechanics of shoving new thoughts into a database every day?

Suzanne Cridge from SVA pointed to a 2015 post of Jennifer Orr's today on Twitter that awoke my brain from its holiday-induced inertia.

And as I felt uncomfortable with the wording of her blog post title (but not its content or message) I have decided to unpack it a bit here by starting by subbing out the word "Worst" for "Most Disadvantaged" to sit better in my Australian context.  Despite the difference in choice of words and we are comparing different education systems, we are talking about equivalent concepts here - a Title 1 school in the US shares similarities with "low category" schools here in South Australia - so using the phrase disadvantaged covers a lot of the same issues - trauma, migrant or refugee backgrounds, poverty, transience, disability in significant amounts.

I have heard many defensive comments from educators from private schools systems that sort of miss the point. "We have families here who are struggling financially." "We have students from different cultures." "We have students under the Guardianship of the Minister." Yes, you do but not to the same degree or in the same numbers. It doesn't impact on the way you teach or run the school to the same degree as schools that are officially designated as "disadvantaged".

Even in the SA public school system, the degrees of complexity are easy to identify. We use a system of Categories to define the least to most disadvantaged and complex. Category 1 to 3 are the low categories where the most disadvantage and complexity can be found while at the other end, Category 6 and 7 schools have the more affluent communities where things like Non-English speaking kids are a small minority, School Card percentage is low and where families in crisis are less noticeable. I've taught at both ends of the category spectrum and can testify that there is significant difference in what teachers encounter on a day to day basis, and practices that run smoothly for a more compliant student body can come undone in environments where the kids have a lot more to deal with outside of their school life.

In my first year at Woodville Gardens, I recall some of our teachers being highly offended that a visiting teacher from a Cat 7 school making a remark that she was glad that she managed to avoid teaching in "tough schools" like ours as she wasn't sure that she could handle it. Rightly so, our teachers resented the implication that our school was viewed as a less desirable place in which to carve out a career.

Talk to teachers at these schools and you will hear sentiments about making a real difference, and about adjusting and making learning relevant for students who haven't had the advantages of being born into a family where the dominant language matches the language of our institutions of learning, where coming to school hungry is not through choice, where the impact of social issues like racism and being left to fend for yourself at a young age is a reality. The stories that are shared of students we have known sound far fetched to educators who have never experienced this complexity on a regular basis. Engagement is not just a fancy word to bandy around - it is the real key to getting our kids to buy in and own their learning.

Jennifer sums things very well in this paragraph:

Our students often speak two or more languages, help their families navigate bureaucracies, care for younger siblings, and support the family in a variety of ways. Our students are skilled and smart in many different ways. Unfortunately, those ways aren’t always reflected in school-related skills or on standardized assessments.

To bring this post full circle, that is why it is cool for my school, Prospect North which serves a complex, disadvantaged community to be connected to people like Suzanne who works for Social Ventures Australia (SVA), an organisation that helped to connect up schools from the disadvantaged sector all around Australia who are doing innovative things into a community that shares and develops its practice. These schools are working hard to ensure that these students not only have the best teachers but their educational experience matches or surpasses what high category and the private sector schools can offer their kids. It's a reason I was so proud of my First Lego League teams - they deserve the opportunity as much as any kid in Australia and given that opportunity will step up and shine. And this only happens, as Jennifer points out, if the best teaching is happening in those schools. Not just because it is a good idea but as Jen points out, it is imperative:

Every minute will be accounted for and a part of meaningful learning. It has to be.

 

My last three posts have been focussed on my first foray into First Lego League and the students involved. But together with my fellow AP, Nicola, we also decided to get started with First Lego League Junior this year to broaden STEM enrichment offerings at Prospect North, and to cater for younger students. Nicola had heard about the program before so I decided to do some research. First Lego League has been operating in Australia since 2006 (worldwide since 1999) but its younger cousin is much newer (worldwide since 2007) and seems to have been available in Australia for a few years. And while there were three regional tournaments for FLL available here in South Australia, there were no official Expos planned for this state.

What is involved in First Lego League Junior? An short excerpt from the website sums it up best:

Focused on building an interest in science and engineering in children ages 6-9, FIRST® LEGO® League Junior is a hands-on program designed to capture young children's curiosity and direct it toward discovering how science and technology impact the world around them. This program features a real-world challenge, to be explored through research, critical thinking and imagination. Guided by adult coaches and the Core Values, team members work with LEGO® elements (LEGO WeDo Kit) and motorized parts to build ideas and concepts and present them for review.

Each yearly Challenge is based on a different theme and has two main parts, the LEGO® Model and the Show Me Poster.

Teams consist of two to six children and are guided by at least two adult coaches. During the season they will:

  • Conduct research about the current Challenge theme.
  • Build a LEGO® Model based on the Challenge instructions that contains both a simple machine and a motorized part.
  • Display their findings on a Show Me poster.

The culmination of the hard work for many teams is the participation in an expo event ... Volunteer Reviewers at the event interview the teams to learn about their LEGO® Model and Show Me poster. All the teams are celebrated and leave with an award.

I had bought Lego WeDo 2.0 kits for the school as one of my first investments from the STEM budget and worked across the Year 2 - 4 classrooms to give students the opportunity to use this very hands on technology. FLL Jr is tied to the use of WeDo - and so together, Nicola and I decided to offer this opportunity to four teams of students from ages 6 - 10. We started by asking the Digital Leaders who might be interested, and then asked the Year 1 teachers to nominate a student who would benefit from the experience.

I ordered four team Inspiration Model kits which are part of the year's program. This year's theme was Aqua Adventure, which ties in with the FLL's HydroDynamics theme. The kits were ordered from Macquarie University and cost $20 each. When I looked online to find out a bit more about the kit, I was very pleased to see that each kit had over 700 pieces! Lego are a bit like Apple in that they don't really do discount on their products so these kits represented phenomenal value. When I told my principal, her first reaction was to ask, "How many of these kits can we order?" Schools can always use more Lego.

This much Lego for $20!

There is also an Engineering Notebook that is given out to students in the US but it raises the costs of registration significantly. Here in Australia, participating coaches could access the Notebook via a download link which I cannot share here. The Notebook was a great scaffolded learning journey that Nicola and I used as a blueprint with the students, covering ideas like the PlayPump™ and getting kids to use Lego to engineer concepts along the way on the them of human water use.

The four teams gave themselves theme based names and we nominated Year 4 students as leaders to keep the mixed gender and year level teams on track. These leaders helped to design the team t-shirts which also helped build the excitement as we worked our way through the ten week program. We decided to hold our own local Expo with the goal of expansion in 2018 once we felt like we knew what we were doing. With a few weeks to go and while balancing the responsibilities for the Hydrodynamics teams and a school commitment to hosting a Kids Teach STEM conference for our local partnership schools, we nailed down an Expo date. The teams worked towards this by typing up what they had learned and displaying it on large ShowMe posters. The working models were constructed - even though they did not approach the scale and complexity of what we could see online. Nicola and I worried about our standards not being as high and the students' work needing more depth but in the end, the students did a commendable job considering how much time they were given and that this was a brand new process for everyone and no one really knew how it would all turn out.

The models had to demonstrate a solution to a water based problem for humans. One team looked at how to decontaminate water, one looked at recycling water for showers and other non-drinking purposes, another two showed how to filter household water out to a garden or other purposes.

So, the day after the Kids Teach STEM Conference, we gathered in the library for our initial FLL Junior Expo. The four teams were dressed in their various coloured t-shirts and stood proudly by their displays. I had some small Lego based trophies for Awards out on display - the rules state that each team must win an Award if awards are given. I had the team names on lego blocks that were to be added as the Awards were determined. More parents than expected came along for the introduction and I even made contact with a grandparent who was a retired engineer who was full of praise for the event and offered to be of service to our school with possibilities of STEM mentoring in 2018. After parents and classmates had a good look, it was time for the teams to be reviewed. Marg, our principal and Phil, our retired Scientist in Residence did the reviewing and some senior FLL students ran a Core Values activity and a Guess The Famous Lego Minifigure quiz for teams while they waited. We then held our Closing Ceremony with certificates for all participants via the traditional High Five Line, and the trophies were awarded to each team.

Check out my custom Lego trophy in the student's hand!

The whole program was quite successful and I hope to promote this out to the wider education community here in South Australia, with the goal of becoming the official host of the First Lego League Junior here at Prospect North. So, if you are from a South Australian school with a 6 to 10 year old demographic and you are reading this, it is a great opportunity. For the cost of $20 for the Inspiration kit, it is a cheap STEM enrichment option. Feel free to email me - graham.wegner499@schools.sa.edu.au

 

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On the Monday after the Regional, I proudly put our trophy up on the front office counter along with the certificate. Whatever happened next, our first FLL outing had a tangible memento of that team's success.But we had decisions to make - would we take the team to the Sydney National Championship? First of all, I have to find out if the families would commit to the idea first. I drafted a letter to send home, setting the minimum response at six students to make the trip viable and asking for a commitment (if funding was available) by Wednesday. Immediately, two students informed that they would not be able to be part of it as their families had already committed to overseas trips to visit family in Korea and India respectively that departed prior to the Championship dates of December 2 and 3. I wasn't that hopeful.

Then an email lobbed in my inbox on Tuesday morning that set a deadline by the end of the week to either confirm our place or release it for a wildcard entrant. A few team members visited me in my office with pleas to "make it happen" - they were still flushed with success and even with the whole venture totally unconfirmed continued to practice and perfect robot coding missions. A couple of Splice Cube members offered moral support and advice as well which was really appreciated. On Wednesday, six forms came back to me meaning that families were supportive of seizing the opportunity. By Thursday we had secured funding for the trip and so I excitedly sent off the confirmation that we would indeed be heading to Macquarie University! After securing tickets and accommodation, the team ran through all of the crucial things that needed to be organised and fine tuned before the next weekend.

The coding missions were refined and the script for the presentation modified for fewer participants. They decided to stick with "simplicity is the key" robot design and we packed some attachments and spare parts into a ziploc bag, padded the robot for the trip and added some spare batteries. Notes were sent home and permission forms gathered in readiness for the early flight out of Adelaide the next morning.

We flew out of Adelaide at 6.00 am and got into Sydney at around 8.30 am local time. We secured a Maxicab for the trip out to Macquarie and the driver took us over the Sydney Harbour Bridge. We were quite early so headed over to the local food court to eat some "brunch". We then joined the massing teams near the registration area - there were teams from state schools, quite a few private schools and some homeschooled teams. There were teams wearing their school uniforms and others like us in their customised team t-shirts. There were teams who were carting in large black plastic crates filled with robots and attachments. By comparison, when it rained later on, our robot fitted in a plastic shopping bag!

Once registered, we found our pit area which was a lot smaller than the spacious room we had shared at Novar Gardens. There was certainly no room to spread out so I was glad that I didn't bring our game mat. We looked at our schedule and just like the Regional, we were super fortunate to have a great run. Everything was well spaced out - the first thing was the Research Project which the kids agreed would be great to get out of the way and minimise the length of time battling nerves. This was followed by Robot design and then Core Values which the team was really, really confident about. Then we would have our three Robot games, one mid afternoon, one early evening and then the final mid-morning on Sunday. It was time to head over to the opening ceremony.

There were 68 teams at the Nationals, plus volunteers adding up to around 1200 people at this event which meant that the Opening Ceremony was held in two theatres at the same time, with any spectators watching a live stream in a third theatre. Each team were allocated coloured wristbands that sent them to a specific theatre - we were off the the Lotus Theatre which would house about a third of the participants while the Macquarie held the majority. The hosts took it in turns while being broadcast on the screens behind them. As seems to be the case with Lego events, it was high energy and dynamic, building up the excitement for everyone. The ceremony took longer than we expected and we nervously watched the time tick up closer to our 1.00 pm start time for our Research Project. We raced out of the theatre with ten minutes to spare, grabbed the props and pounded up two flights of stairs to get to the right venue .... but the judges weren't there yet! They were still on their way back from the theatre so the team calmed themselves. This was held in a lecture theatre and at the coaches' meeting we were told to be respectful of how many visitors and family members we were bringing to watch as to not interfere with the judges' job. That wasn't a problem for us - our audience was a total of one person, Casey, an upper primary teacher from PNPS who was generously giving up her weekend to be our female staff member on duty. A judge arrived and the students got started with their presentation on water contamination only to have the second judge join his offsider a few minutes in. The team took it all in stride and were done in around three minutes, possibly indicating that the research project needed more depth.

Time seemed to move very quickly and it was soon approaching time for Robot Design judging. With our key coder in India, his compatriots had to step up and explain the coding choices while the others talked through their design choices, their mission strategy and demonstrated some of the missions with the robot. This was good because they were relieved to see that the missions that worked so well back in the STEM room at school looked like they would yield similar results here in Sydney. A couple of missions went a bit awry so immediately after the session concluded, a couple of times were booked for later on the practice tables. Shortly afterwards, we moved over to another building for the Core Values activity. All weekend long, all of the team members talked about this area being their strength, how they got on so well together, how they complemented each other and communicated to others. They were certain that with this chemistry that I also could really feel, that they would do well.

And they did. The challenge was a simple one - a scenario of a flooded neighbourhood and six items that could be of use in such a disaster. Unanimously decide and justify which item would be kept within two minutes. They astounded the judges when they came to consensus in under forty seconds! They justified their choice clearly, and spoke like a team, finishing each other's sentences without interrupting - it just showed through that they were all on the same page. They answered some questions about decision making and choices within the context of the team and they were finished. "I think we nailed it", said Anna, our youngest member.

The Robot Game setup was pretty much the same as the Regional but in a much larger theatre with more hype and overhead cameras broadcast on the screens behind. The first game scored 50 points which was no disgrace but we could see some of the more advanced teams scoring in the 200 - 300 point range. A lot of these teams were using box robots that could handle various types of attachments, and could sweep down the game table covering numerous missions before returning to base. Not really knowing much about robot design prior to becoming a coach, I could see how teams with multiple years of experience can build on their prior robot and can continue to work on the design even during the "off season". After all, even if the theme and missions are different every year, what the robot is being asked to do can be predicted and designed in advance. The missions dictate that a robot can push, lift, pick up, move objects, flip, rotate, push down, release and so on. Even with a couple of year's experience, a team could build a robot that can be readily adapted to the requirements of a new theme. YouTube is full of videos shared by FLL teams from all over the world so there is no shortage of inspiration and concepts to try out.

The rain came down mid afternoon and we dodged showers to head back to the food court for a late lunch/early dinner. The team was in great spirits and I had managed to livestream the first round to the school FaceBook page. As we ate our food, I checked some of the comments and found Vedant, the team member who had gone to India just a few days prior had watched the footage, and offered strategy and words of advice to the team. This was fantastic and again, spoke to how bonded together the team was. He offered tips on how to improve the next round through improved positioning of attachments and so on.

... remember one slight movement in the position will change the whole missions success rate.

The second round was at 6.30 pm and things went well for a new high score of 70. Remembering that the original goal was any score above zero and that H2Flo were really using a "booklet robot" with precise coding based on wheel rotations and exact starting spots, this was a good effort. It didn't matter that we were ranking in the 50's because we knew our strength wasn't robots - but that still was the fun part. We put the robot back in its plastic bag, tidied up our pit area and then caught a maxicab to our accommodation at Mantra Chatswood.

The rain from Saturday's afternoon and evening were gone by Sunday morning which was cloudless and sunny. After fuelling everyone on toast, we packed up and headed back to Macquarie University for the second day. Everyone was relaxed and that might have been why no one checked the robot very closely prior to our final Robot Game, which turned out to be a sticking point when the pressure of the "1, 2, 3, Lego" start commenced. The final round stalled when the robot wouldn't move - the culprit was loose cables but after a bit of freaking out and getting one mission complete, things fell apart rapidly for a 10 point final score. Luckily only the best round counts, and lots of teams have at least one bad round.

We stayed to watch some of the other teams including the amazing Project Bucephalus whose robot scored a mind boggling 390 points. And the cool thing was that my team weren't intimidated by this - they were inspired! We then packed up the pit area fully and then headed back over to the food court again for an early lunch with plenty of time for the Closing Ceremony. Again, this was back in the Lotus Theatre with live crossing back and forth from the Macquarie Theatre. There was dancing and a high five line and plenty of celebrating when they announced that all teams would be getting FLL medals for making it to Nationals. When over 680 teams who participated in First Lego League from all over Australia, being in the top 10% was quite an achievement for all National Championship teams.

They then listed out the trophy categories and the winners, second and third place getters. With 36 trophies being given out, we were optimistic that maybe, just maybe our good fortune might continue. And it did ... with a Third Place trophy in the Inspiration category, a sub branch of the Core Values part of the competition. Turns out H2Flo's instincts about the team chemistry were very accurate. Then it was all over very quickly, and it was time to get back to the airport, catch the plane and greet some very amazed and justifiably proud families back at Adelaide Airport.

So, last night I tried to document my preparation for my two First Lego League teams. As I wrote in the previous post, I was a rookie coach with two rookie teams so I had spent a lot of time checking through documents from the First website but still really felt like the teams weren't really getting the guidance they needed. Part of it was that I was also very busy with other responsibilities both at work and at home. Anyway, I had registered both teams for the Novar Gardens Regional, which was to be held a week after the PAC Regional as a result of more teams entering FLL for the first time. There were about 40 teams lined up for the PAC event, and there were 18 teams in the Novar Gardens one. I recall thinking that this was good as that meant my kids wouldn't be overwhelmed and overrun by experienced teams who really knew their robotics. Even so, I told both teams that our main goal was to have fun and enjoy the experience - by now, everyone was pretty confident that their Robot Game score wouldn't be zero!

The Novar Gardens event was held at Immanuel College where a long, long time ago I was a student. In FLL, each team gets allocated an area to call their home for the day, commonly known as "the pits". These were all in the Margaret Ames Centre, on the site of the old boys boarding house. An interesting sidenote is that Margaret Ames was my Year 12 English teacher - I have said in the past that no teacher in my education inspired me to become a teacher but in her case, she was definitely one of the better ones. It helped that I liked English.

We put all of our gear in the pits area and I went over to the Coaches Meeting to get the lowdown on latest rulings in the Robot Game, how the practice table areas could be booked and where to find every part of the day's schedule. We were reminded to remind our students that judges were always on the lookout for examples of Gracious Professionalism ™ so teamwork, helping out others and being thoughtful were aspects outside of the actual robotics that would determine how teams fared on the day. Marg, my principal, came along for the day and luckily so as I soon found that trying to juggle two teams was an extreme challenge for one coach as two different schedules meant some clashes where I could not be in two places at once. After an opening ceremony, both teams got to have a practice Robot Game on the competition tables in the Century Theatre. Then the day was up and running.

I attended with both teams at various times to go to their three judging sessions. These sessions are held with the team and coach only in the room - no external spectators. Even though both teams had these in differing orders, I will recount them as if it was sequential. Both teams had to present their Research Project to a couple of judges. Splice Cubes tackled their human based water problem on the issue of the lack of fresh water in the world. Their research told them that about 3% of the world's water is fresh and two thirds of that is frozen. Their proposal was to mine icebergs and melt that water and transport it to countries where water is in short supply. The judges asked some probing questions about their concept - what would be the effect on the world's climate if this were to happen? H2Flo tackled water contamination as their issue and had created a 3D printed filter prototype. Again, some probing questions from the judges kept them wondering if they needed more depth in their research as their presentation was quite entertaining. From my perspective, both teams did a reasonable job but I felt that their research needed more depth and their solution needed further development.

Another session was the Robot Design Judging session. Both teams had developed relatively simple robots that were devoid of sensors. H2Flo went with the mantra that their design embraced the "simple is better" philosophy with less to go wrong. Our coding experts were able to talk to the judges about their strategy for tackling the various missions. Splice Cubes had build a squared off structure using Lego beams on the back on the robot to assist with more accurate mission launches. For this session, I felt that Splice Cubes had the edge. After all, in the week leading up to the Regional, their robot was regularly scoring between 50 and 90 points in practice sessions. They also had more mission runs up their sleeve; the result of the time that the girls in their team had invested during their break times. However, at one lunch time the H2Flo robot went on a spree where everything clicked and the robot scored a hypothetical 95 points. I still thought that the Splice Cubes robot and coding was superior and that would show out in the Robot Games still to come.

The final judges session was the Core Values session. The task was for the team to build a tower as tall as possible from Lego in two minutes, have it measured by a judge and then break up it all up and return it to the box in pieces ready for the next team. The judges also asked questions of the team - how did you come up with your name? What is the best part of FLL? What is the most important thing that you have learnt? It was in this session that H2Flo really clicked especially when Jimmy (remember him from the past post?) responded to the last question by saying that he felt that the most important thing he had learned was teamwork as prior to this, he didn't really know any of his team mates all that well and they were all very different people but through teamwork they had come together to share the common goal of being committed to the team and doing their collective best. This was really cool and when I look back at their team, of the nine kids who came on that day, there were four different religious backgrounds represented and five different cultural backgrounds as well as being balanced gender wise.

Then there were the three Robot Game matches. This is the spectator friendly component of FLL and is probably the hook that gets kids interested in the first place. Marg streamed all of the matches to our school FaceBook page which was great as I missed three of the matches due to the judging sessions. This was pretty close - in these matches only the best of the three scores counts towards the final outcome. Splice Cubes managed a credible 55 points as their best and H2Flo slid just past them with a 60 point best effort. This had the two teams at fifth and sixth place at the end of the matches - which we thought was pretty good for first timers. The best score posted was 130 by a team of high school students but the smaller field at this Regional meant that the big scores we had seen on YouTube weren't happening here. Once again, the teamwork of H2Flo showed through after a disastrous second robot game where nearly every mission failed. The student who had designed most of the coding was beside himself and was very upset, feeling that he had completely let the team down. Sitting down in misery, he was quickly surrounded by his teammates who all did their best to assure him that he had done his best, they were all right behind him, these things happen so don't worry and maybe the robot just needed a fresh battery. I don't know if any judges saw this but the team surrounding and supporting their colleague was super genuine and could well have been the biggest learning moment of the day for these guys.

Mid-afternoon was the time for the closing ceremony. After a demonstration from a FRC robot, and some obligatory YMCA dancing, the hosts and judges had results ready to announce. My two teams were sitting back, relaxed as they had met their goal of enjoying the day. Sitting next to Marg, I said to her, "You know, even though it doesn't matter, it would be pretty cool if one of the teams won a trophy. It would really raise the profile of Lego League in the school and help with STEM hype."

The next thing I know, they were announcing that H2Flo had won the Judges Trophy as the most consistent performers throughout the day. The kids were so excited as it was so unexpected! I felt for their Splice Cube colleagues as they too had given the day their best shot but they were sporting in congratulations for their jubilant team. I was very pleased - the rookie team had worked like a team all day and had been recognised and the Lego trophy was very cool.

A bigger surprise was still to come as the announcements wound to a conclusion. "Before we announce the day's Champion who will be invited to compete at the National Championship in Sydney, we will announce the second place getter who will also be invited to go to Sydney. That team is .... H2Flo!"

As the kids screamed and leapt to head to the front of the theatre, Marg and I looked at each other and thought, how are we going to pull this off? The rookies from the disadvantaged state school had exceeded all expectations and now an enormous opportunity sat in front of us. Could we get organised in time? Would parents support it? So, as we headed back to the pits to pack up for the day, my head was swirling with what might be possible. I had seen the email reminder a few weeks earlier that alerted all teams to the National Championship but I had binned it, never thinking that either team were going to gain anything but experience from their first FLL foray. Once the excitement subsided on Monday, we had some serious decisions to make before any promises could be made.

 

 

In the past I think I have mentioned that I haven't always been that interested in robots, or even coding for that matter. On a personal level I just struggled to be interested in learning about then, even though on a professional level I knew it was important. In the previous few years at Woodville Gardens I was spoiled to have a talented teacher, Mel, on board who was super keen in this area and single-handedly got the school's Lego Robotics program off the ground. My contribution was limited to signing off on the purchases from the budget and coming along to a RoboCup event in 2015. I checked in from time to time to see how she was going with the students and thought that entering teams in the First Lego League was a great idea but I didn't really step up and really find out exactly what was involved. Which was to my detriment - one of my few professional regrets of the last few years. But it was a testament to Mel's talent and drive that she didn't come looking for my support or help. Her efforts were rewarded at the 2016 Regional day where her team won the Research Project trophy.

Fast forward to this year and I stepped into a new role as Assistant Principal - STEM at Prospect North Primary. My principal, Marg (who in her own words is a "fellow techhead") described my role as getting a lot of technology programs up and running to really widen opportunities for the students, and hinted that I might want to get a First Lego League program up and running. And so away I went on a whirlwind journey that would progress way beyond my own expectations.

Not content with just learning how to be a rookie coach in a new-for-me venture, my fellow AP Nicola and I also decided to get involved in First Lego League Junior, a first for the school and indeed as it turned out a first for any school in this state. But that's another story for another post because as successful as FLL Jr was for our first go, it was still contained within our own expectations. And unlike how I left Mel by herself at WGS, Nicola was an equal driver of this program.

But on the FLL front, it was just me to get it all up and running. I called a meeting of interested students from Year 5 to 7, and had just over twenty keen potential participants come along. Trying to be inclusive and democratic, we decided to form two teams of ten with a couple of reserves should anyone find it wasn't for them. At that stage, I wasn't even sure it was for me either! I gave them the option of forming their own teams and one group quickly formed around two friendship groups and a connection between twins. This team became Splice Cubes. The other team was a mixed bag of students who didn't really know each other that well - the only common factor was that they were interested in pursuing this whole venture further. And interestingly, when teams meant that one person had to be a reserve, a Year 7 boy called Jimmy volunteered to be that person because he "didn't want anyone else to miss out." This is retrospectively interesting so remember the name as this post rambles along. This team decided to name themselves H2Flo.

I had ran lessons with the upper primary classes using our newly purchased Lego Mindstorms EV3 robot kits but felt like I was only just a step or two ahead of the students. A quite a few of the talented and keen kids who had signed up for FLL grasped the concepts of Mindstorms coding quickly and moved quickly past my expertise to figure a lot of stuff for themselves. Again, it is important for teachers to realise that they don't have to expert in everything but affording the students the opportunity to learn for themselves and not be constrained by their teacher's limitations. I tried to operate with that mindset throughout this whole journey, trying to relay information as required for them to get to their goals efficiently.

For any readers not familiar with Lego League, the deal is something like this. You can have a team of up to ten students aged 9-16 and they have several tasks that they must prepare for in order to compete at a Regional Championship. Every year, Lego have a new theme based around a social human issue - previous years have looked at rubbish, senior citizens and human interaction with animals. This year's theme was HydroDynamics and was focussed on human use of water and associated problems. The Robot Game is a large mat with Lego constructed missions that an EV3 based robot must undertake in order to score points within a two and half minute Game. The team must also prepare a Research Project presentation that must take no more than five minutes in front of judges, and it must offer a unique solution to a problem identified that ties in with the season's theme. At the Championships, there is also a Robot Design section and a Core Values activity that the team does not get to see until the day.

The August launch date for the new season loomed quickly and we ordered a custom built practice table from the carpenter partner of Jasmin, one of our Reception teachers who had worked with Mel in 2016 with the Woodville Gardens team in their successful Animal Allies foray. This table is a thing of beauty - so nice we have resisted the urge to paint it and left in its natural unvarnished state. After a quick online application I registered both teams and scored some sponsorship from Google who paid for our registration, the cost of the game kit and a new EV3 kit. This is part of Google and Lego's commitment to try and encourage schools from a disadvantaged background to get involved - for us, it was much appreciated.

It didn't take long for the game kit to arrive and I got both team to unpack and build the Lego models for the game mat that fitted into our practice table. There was a model toilet that triggered a water treatment plant when flushed, there were water pipes that needed replacing, a well to push into place, a fountain and flower that needed "big waters" and other models that required the robot to lift, push, move or carry to complete successfully. These models were placed or locked into place with velcro like tabs and the students could start planning for their robot games. Both teams decided to build robots based on the EV3 booklets and decided not to include infrared or colour sensors as our fast tracked learning curve had not allowed time to get particularly competent in their use. Each team met and allocated roles so that the Research Project would not get neglected but as they had not participated before or seen this before, they were unsure of how the whole thing should look and be structured. And because I had neglected to take a close look at Mel had done it with her teams, I was only guessing with my own advice.

After a while, a small group of girls from the Splice Cubes team started asking me if I could supervise them during their breaks as they felt they were getting somewhere with their coding. They designed attachments and modified their robot in an effort to get consistency when they "launched" it out to tackle a mission. They analysed the game mat and planned which missions were within their reach as rookies, and worked towards those goals. The other team were more sporadic in their break time visits and seemed to have a rotating roster of students who were looking at their coding. Their robot was less sophisticated and they were in awe of how far in front the Splice Cube students were in comparison. Once the whole gamut of expectations were unveiled and regular meetings at break times, we had a couple of kids decide that it wasn't for them and this opened up the opportunity for a reserve to join in. This was fortunate for H2Flo as Jimmy was able to participate fully and share his coding and strategic skills with the team.

It was about that time that I went to FLL training run by Concept2Creation who run the FLL events here in Adelaide. They had referees and volunteers from the community team RoboRoos there and I learned a lot of key information that was invaluable. One comment that stuck in my mind was that is not unusual for a rookie team to have a Robot Game where nothing goes right and scores a 0. So, don't be concerned - if your team can get your robot to score anything then that counts as a success! That was a great message to take back to the students.

At the end of Term 3, I realised that there were only 4 weeks to go before our Regional at Novar Gardens in mid November. We met with the teams and checked on their projects and Game progress. Splice Cubes were looking promising with their robots but had still to get going on their Research Project and were still even to identify a problem to solve. Meanwhile to my surprise, H2Flo were quietly well advanced in their research showing me a draft script and a prototype 3D design, but their robot game efforts were a batch of individually developed mission coding strings sitting on four to five different laptops. We resolved to have every break time available to either team to work on their priorities, and I negotiated an extended release time from regular lessons for the students. One of the guidelines of FLL is that teachers/coaches are there to help but the students do all of the work - I made sure that was the case resisting the adult urge to meddle and give them "better ideas". We had team t-shirts designed and ordered so that we would look just like those teams we could see on YouTube videos of American FLL events. At $20 a student, they were a great investment in team spirit.

The November 19 Regional was rushing up at us. There was panic, apprehension and excitement in equal measures. Media release forms were signed and returned and the two teams were as ready as any team who doesn't really know what they have signed up for looks like. Would the whole experience live up the expectations we had in our own minds? We were about to find out.