COSI Tournament – Lessons Learned

LIke my recap after our State Tournament, here are a few new lessons we learned from our FLL Tournament at COSI this morning:



  • Develop on 2 or 3 identical eV3 robots to ensure consistency and have reliable backups for tournaments
  • Be careful of using too may MyBlocks, have multiple levels of complexity to demonstrate knowledge yet have guaranteed working version
  • Gear Chains are not realiable, if used, use 2x or 3x in parallel for redundency
  • Have modular sections that can easily be added/removed from body


  • Go over rubric carefully and know what will be asked in every judging room
  • Prepare for judges who are in a bad mood, distracted, hostile as well as ideal judges
  • Be in control, don’t let judges or other team members get off script or derail presentation
  • Memorize the scoring rubric and be sure to answer everyone – the judges may not always ask you every questions or give you time to answer them either
  • Take control, answer the ruberic questions without prompting in order to make it easier on the judges
  • Be ready to assert yourself and keep presentations focused, advancing and on time


  • Cannot waste valuable meeting time, especially right before tournament
  • Individuals have to commit, especially in the critical run-up to tournament
  • Need to have code freeze week before tournament and just tune up
  • Must practice our sketch for a variety of potential judges and have waybacks

UPDATE: 1/15/2016

I spoke with a parent and previous volunteer FLL judge from Granville, OH about our unexpected experience at the COSI Tournament.  She said that some judges are aggressive in searching out and disqualifing any team they suspect of too much parental involvement.  It may just have been a bad judgement call by a newbie FLL judge to so judge our Research Project so extremely low.

In retrospect, it probably was a tactical mistake to sign-up for a brand new tournament at COSI with so many rookie teams from Columbus City Schools.  As a vetran team that went to the State Championships last season and spent over 100 hours on our Research Project this season, out kids probably looked unlike anything our judges expected the first thing in the morning juding their first tournament.  It’s probably understandable they didn’t believe our kids could do such work given their frame of reference at that time.


Never Give Up


It was an emotional rollercoaster at COSI for our FLL tournament on Saturday.  Although we entered the tournament regularly scoreing 400-600 points, our eV3 brick suffered a catastrophic failure the morning of the tournament wherein it could not even drive straight.  This was the exact same failure we saw at our State Tournament this spring when our robot would veer off at odd curves with even a single steering block.  Unlike simple deflection or distance errors, we can not programmically correct for this type of error.

On the pratice table, ecoBot couldn’t solve a single mission due to this failure.  We got a -24 pts (3 touch penalties, no missions solved) on our official practice round.  Panic set in and there was the risk of just giving up.  Manfred and I had to push the kids not to give up, make them realize they could still get enough points to advance, and help them prioritize work within the short time they had to build impromtu attachments, program and test on the practice tables.

We had to find out how to do a factory reset on the eV3, borrow a cable to upgrade the firmware and reinstall or rewrite all the code from scratch.  Then they had to test out their code during the limited times they had on the practice tables which were a free-for-all.

In an amazing effort, JP and Devin got 371 pts on their first official run for a comfortable 3rd place out of 21 teams.  After 2 more rounds, only 1 team was able to leapfrog us by a few points and push us into 4th at the end of the Robot Challenge.  We thought we had done the near impossible.  The best life lesson of the season was encapsulated in those 90mins – never give up no matter what the odds.  Never quit.



Unfortunately, with our day’s robot problems the scores from our Robot Judging were only average since the robot judging occured early in the day before we could fix ecoBot.  Our Core Values judging was our strongest, yet even here were were dinged for “Kids do the Work” despite much of the content a rehash of last year’s topics and Beckett writing all the copy and decorating the boards.

One comment suggested that our boards looked too good compared to our presentation.  Beckett is very creative and an excellent artists, but the team is also excels at presentations.  Half the kids are on my team advaced to the Destination Imagination Improv State Championship last year.


Most surprisingly, we began our day with an awful experience with the Project Judging which was the area we focused most of our efforts and felt we had the strongest entry.  Since we began our FLL season on June 1, we put in well over 100 hours on our Research Project and had one of the two most sophisticated projects we saw at the event (the other being a mobile app that won the Project award).

We  were one of the first teams to present at 8:45, and the kids began with their skit to demonstrate how we came up with the idea of ecoSmart and why it was needed.  The room was extremely loud with several teams presenting at the same time it was hard to hear.

After the skit, the two judges immediately questioned our kids in several different ways if they really did the work.  It would’ve helped if the kids mentioned that we’ve probably put in many times more hours than most other teams since Jun 1st, but I think they were taken back by the line of questioning.  The judges were very stern, rarely smiled and didn’t ask a single question about the web app itself or anything about the content on our poster.

When Mateo tried to begin presenting our project by explaining the problems ecoSmart solved he was cut off 3 times by the judges and gave up.  The judges again cut off the kids when they were telling them the sources they used in response to their questions.  The aggressiveness of the judges surprised our kids and they became more passive in the face of the hostile judges.  It was totally unlike any of the three previous tournaments we had participated in.

At the awards ceremony we failed to advance with the top 7 teams despite placing 4th in the robot, a strong Core Values and very strong Project.  We were all shocked.  When we got our scores at the end of the tournament we found the main reason for our failure was the Project score.  Here were our lowest sub-scores for the Project:

  • Sources of Information – only two sources: (we cited 4 sources our poster and the kids recited 3 before the judges cut them off)
  • Problem Identification – details missing:  Mateo tried three times to list the four problems we solved with but he was cut off each time by the judges
  • Team Solutions – confusing:  this is a result of the judges cutting off our kids and not letting them explain their project
  • Presentation Effectivness – minimal organization:  the judges were very agressive and shut the kids down by repeatedly by not letting them answer questions or explain what problems solves and how it does so.
  • Team Spent more time coming up with solution – The judges dinged us because they thought we “spent too much time coming up with solution” which is odd since they didn’t ask any timeframes (just what other ideas we considered).  A core part of the entrepreneurial process is exploring several deadends before finally discovering an idea that solves a real and significant problem in an innovative and efficient way.  I couldn’ve directed the team to the best idea from our brainstorm very early but that is not part of the natural process.

    Here are several important lessons the kids learned from the day though:

  • Never quit, no matter how bad the situation seems (bouncing back from the robot malfunction was more impressive than winning this first level tournament)
  • Judges are just like other people and come with their own emotions, biases and predispositions
  • Sometimes you have work much harder and be much better just to have an even shot and even then don’t expect to success every time
  • Success is a statistical process and creme will rise to the top eventually
  • Prepare to hostile questions, misdirection and omissions by keeping to a script in pleasant if assertive way – learn how to sell your ideas and self into any situation




Good Intentions

Are not enough and often misguided.  When it comes to the environment where there more emotion than facts it can lead to more hard than good.  Here is a great example of bad ecological decisions made by a misunderstanding about the underlying facts as reported by The Huffington Post:



Go into Jamba Juice today and you’ll find something new. Your drink will be served in a specially designed double-walled paper cup.

That’s because, back in August 2012, when fifth grader Mia Hansen ordered a smoothie at a Jamba Juice in Carlsbad, California, only to have it served to her in a polystyrene foam cup, she started a petition on asking the company to stop using foam cups. After her petition received 135,000 signatures in three weeks, Jamba Juice announced it would end its use of foam food service containers. Recently, the company began phasing in what it calls an “eco-friendly” cup — a paper cup featuring a design created just for the drinks it sells. “As a company with a strong concern for people and the planet,” CEO James D. White said about the cup, “we continually seek to improve our environmental footprint across all areas of our business, and our move to this innovative paper cup is a major milestone in these efforts.”

But there are problems with this foam-to-paper shift. Despite common public perception, paper cups are not easy to recycle. Most paper cups are lined with a thin layer of wax, which makes the cup difficult to recycle. Indeed, one recent study revealed that in major American cities only 10 percent of paper food service containers are recycled, lower than the 16 percent for foam containers. In addition, a paper cup creates more solid waste, by weight, than its foam counterpart.

Consider also the process used to make a paper cup — harvesting wood, converting wood into paper, then producing the cup itself. “It takes two and a half times as much energy to make a paper cup as it does to make a foam cup,” Christopher Bonanos wrote in New York. “Foam cups are also much lighter than paper cups, reducing the amount of fuel needed to ship them to the store and to cart them away as trash. Foam also produces a lot less manufacturing waste, because there are no paper offcuts to discard.” As a result, a paper cup actually creates a larger carbon footprint than a foam cup, a result opposite to what Jamba Juice is trying to achieve with its move from foam to paper.

Such problems are a thing of the past with…  ecoSmart.

ecoSmart Beta Version 0.1



Over the long 4 day weekend, Beckett and I worked up the initial questions for our ecoSmart web app and outlined a few more for Lucy and Savannah to complete.  These will be the ones we demo at our tournament in less than 2 weeks.


This week we’ll work through the web site and begin outlining our presentation strategy.  More to follow

Tournament Tchotchkes

FIRST LEGO League encourages each team to come with small giveaways they can present to other teams and visitors at tournaments.  These are called tchotchkes and are commonly handed out in business conventions, tradeshows and exhibitions to promote companies and their products.  The word tchotchkes derives from the slavic word for trinket.


Examples of tech tradeshow tchotchkes

In the context of FLL the idea is to not only promote your team and research project but to also provide a physical connection between teams.  In addition, it gives FLL teams another way to think about connecting with others and provides an excuse to have kids work the floor and go out to meet other kids and learn about their projects.

When we thought about this years theme “Trash Trek” it seemed to go against the idea of “tchotchkes”.  Most tchotchkes are low-value throw-away gifts of poor quality that only add to our trash problem.

Beckett came up with the idea of a drawing of a single higher value gift rather than many low-value disposable tchotchkes.  We thought about which kind of gift would fit this years theme so we searched and ebay for upcycled and repurposed gifts and came across the idea drawing prize:


Our Upcycled Raffle Prize for this year’s tournaments

Another problem we had last year was that most teams just handed out tchotchkes without taking advantage of the exchange.  This year, we thought we’d advertise our drawing giveaway on our business cards.  People could either scan our QR code or go directly to the printed URL and enter the drawing by completing a simple ecoQuiz.


Our Team Cards for this year’s Trash Trek Theme

This would not only raise awareness of for our Research Project, but would also educate people on some of the key issues:

  • Common misconceptions about what is best for the environment
  • How these misconceptions can actually hurt the environment
  • Introduce a science and fact-based way to act smarter for the environment
  • Show them how fulfilled a unique and needed role
  • Introduce them in how to use to make smarter decisions to save the environment