2043 First LEGO League Robot Challenge



Scientific discovery and technical innovation have a life cycle that start from near-magical breakthroughs and progresses to mundane unthinking assumptions about how our world works.  Like a fish unable to recognize the water it swims in, we forgot how amazing STEM has remade our lives.  In contrast, the world of today would be an unimaginable scientific fantasy for my eldest grandfather who was born around 1870.

Everything have been revolutionized from the basic ways we grow food, provide medical care, and travel to the complex and sophisticated ways we network to collaborate, research, create and distribute ever-new products, services and knowledge.


Technologies central to our lives today were still years from being invented at the time of my grandfather’s birth.  In many cases these technologies only became available to the masses decades after being invented (eg approximately 50 years for television broadcast).

1876 – Telephone Patent (Bell)

1879 – First Practical Ligh Bulb (Edison)

1886 – First Gasoline-powered Car (Benz)

1886 – Demonstrated Proof of Radio Waves (Hertz)

1900 – Wireless Radio Broadcast of Human Voice (Landell de Moura)

1901 – First Motorized Aircraft Flight (Weisskopf)

1907 – Bakelite First Plastic (Baekeland)

1909 – First Televised Broadcast (Rignoux and A. Fournier)

1928 – Penicillin (Fleming)

1938 – Z1 First Programmable Computer (Zuse)

1938 – First Nuclear Fission (Hahn)

1942 – V2 Long-range Ballistic Missile (NAZI Military)

1945 – Atomic Bomb (US Military)

1947 – Transistor (Bardeen and Brattain)

1957 – First Personal Computer (IBM)

1958 – First Integrated Circuit (Kilby and Noyce)

1960 – First LASER (Maiman)

1969 – ARAPNET Distributed Computer Network and UNIX invented

1971 – email (Tomlinson)

1984 – Cell Phone (Motorola)

1990 – Internet (Berners-Lee)

1993 – Mosaic Web Browser




Why the year 2043?  Because that is year I expect my oldest son to have his own son his age in First LEGO League based upon life expectancy and the demographics of family formation.  Another useful back of the napkin estimation using social science and statistics like we saw in our Trash Trek Research Project this past year.

Based upon the accelerating pace of scientific discovery and technological innovation, what kind of First LEGO League (or more likely FTC/FRC) could my grandchildren expect to see?  How about this:



How many FLL 2043 Robot Challenge Missions can you identify in this video?  For example, picking up two stacked package and putting them on two opposite shelves.




LEGO Innovation at Play

LEGO is running a small promotion on their Architecture Studio Set so we picked one up.


Unlike most LEGO kits, this set does not come with complete step-by-step instructions but rather general component/design guidelines based upon real architectural theories.  The idea is to create a set that allows for a more creative and exploratory build experience.  In addition, the bricks and models are small scale and largely monochrome white for cost-control and to put the focus on essentials of physical geometric design.

Here is a good marketing blub that explains how the distinct yet complimentary educational goals of the LEGO Architecture Series fit with both the Mindstorms robot sets and Technic set series we are more familiar with from our previous years work in First LEGO League.


As in the LEGO Movie, there really are Master Builders.  We went to a class at the LEGOLAND Hotel taught by a Master Builder who designs and builds models for LEGOLAND Park Florida.  Here is another Master Builder explaining how the beautiful LEGO Architecture model of the Sydney Opera House.


TrashTrek FLL Poster and Presentation

Last week Mateo gave a presentation on our FLL TrashTrek Project, ecoSmart.xyz, to his classmates.


Showing off our FLL robots from previous seasons


Getting ready to explain mission models and attachments



Everyone taking our ecoSmart.xyz quiz

(the highest score was 4 out of 10)

The FLL Posters are pretty self-explanatory.  Kudos to Beckett for the layout and artwork.


Center Panel


Left Panel


fll-trashtrek-teamCore Value Poster

Information Wants to be Free


It’s amazing how much high-value information is available today for free.  I used to be a huge bibliophile with science and techbooks covering most of my Palo Alto apartment save for servers and monitors.  Back in the day good tech books would run about $30-40 apiece and O’Reilly the most common publisher in my collection.

Packt Publishers is one of my favorite technical publishers now and a great example of how once-expensive technical knowledge is approaching free.  Packt gives away electronic versions of one of it’s technical titles everyday on their website.  This week the free books are themed around Machine Learning.

In addition, there are countless well-written and professionally edited-like quality tech publications available for free.  This starts with open-source projects like the mozilla developer network and W3 Schools (covering topics like HTML, CSS, JavaScript) to private and/or open source initiatives like R, Python or AngularJS.  You can even find gamified tech and coding support at sites like StackOverflow and StackExchange.


It seems an alien world, but not so long ago information (especially specialized vocational information) was jealously guarded and hidden from outsiders.  To learn how to become an artists or craftsman would require apprenticing yourself for years to a master in exchange for learning trade secrets typically working your way up from apprentice, craftsman, journeyman, master and eventually grandmaster.  Artists and craftsmen would also organize into gilds to bring order to trade (for taxation), protect their knowledge from outsiders and economically leverage their monopoly on.




Instead of paying $10-60k/yr at college like today, young apprentices would be bound to work for their masters for generally 7-9 years.  Benjamin Franklin ran away from his apprenticeship at his brother’s print shop under unusual circumstances.

The trend towards more quality free technical information favors the intellectual and curious over this more historically important accidents of birth and family connections  – at least in technology and for the rank and file workers.




Good Luck to St. Vincents and Knox Bots at Dublin Tournament Tomorrow

Two local FLL teams will compete tomorrow in the Dublin FLL District Tournament:  the St. Vincent’s and the SPI Spot’s FLL teams.



Dublin Robotics hosts and sponsors the tournament as well as sponsors teams at the FLL, FTC and FRC levels.   Gambier GigaFlops had a good experience last year on our run to the State Championship at Wayne State University.  Dublin is a great school district with some of the strongest academics in central Ohio.

Good luck tomorrow and let’s hope one or both of our local teams bring some hardware home and advance to represent at the State Championship.

LEGOLAND Hotel at Lake Wales, FL

This was our third trip to LEGOLAND Florida and our first stay at the new LEGOLAND HOTEL which just opened this past summer.   It bills itself as the first hotel built from the ground up for kids (not adults) with a 5 gazillion star rating.

Legoland_hotelRolling up to LEGOLAND HOTEL

legoland_hotel_bedNote the dragonfly made of LEGOs on the wall (one of many in our room)

legoland_hotel_brick_pitsPits of countless LEGO bricks throughout the lobby

lego_hotel_poolLarge foam LEGO bricks in the pool


legoland_hotel_disco_elevatorDisco party begins when the elevator doors close


legoland_hotel_nightNight time at LEGOLAND HOTEL

Data Science, ecoSmart.xyz and the $180,000 connection


Although we didn’t use the formal term “Data Science” much this past year while developing our ecoSmart.xyz Research Project, that is basically the core of what we were doing.

  • We studied a variety of business, economic and strategic opportunities around waste disposal for our FLL Trash Treck Research Project.  We explored 4 in depth before deciding upon ecoSmart.xyz from everything including elevator pitches, competitive analysis, to economic and technological viability and quantitative real-world impact.
  • We had an intensive tech summer camp immediately after school finished starting June 1st that explored a wide vareity of technologies we have available at our disposal including user engagment and motivational psychology, interface design, mobile app development, and a vareity of game programming (MIT Scratch, Roblox, JavaScript, etc).
  • We use research to collect data, normalize it and create simple mathematical models to compare apples to oranges and quantify various choices for any given ecological decision point.


Although I wrote a number of posts that cite data science, I only wrote one post that actually defined data science way back on June 9th for Day 7 of our Tech Summer Camp.  Data Science is one of the hottest fields in the high-end of our knowledge economy.  The average salary for a data scientist is $119,000 vs the average salary of a programmer at $65,000. Here is some good advice on a careers in data science.

This FLL season I purposely structured a program that would not only teach you a wide vareity of the many components involved in Data Science, but also used those components to help you identify and craft a FLL Trash Treck Research Project.  ecoSmart.xyz incorporated all these elements to realize an entrepreneurial web service that could potentially address a fundamental shortcoming in our thinking and acting on the waste creation and disposal problem.  ecoSmart.xyz allows people to more accurately weigh alternatives to make better consumer decisions based on data instead of emotion, habit and common misperceptions.

Our data science approach to ecoSmart.xyz is not unique to Computer Science.  It has long been the mainstays of fields like engineering, manufacturing and finance where data science helps engineer better solutions, produce more reliable products at lower cost and identify more profit while containing risks.  More recently data science is being used in more grey areas of human endeavor such as:

The list is long and your future opportunities are great data science.  I hope you gained a unique insight into the fields of data science via our ecoSmart.xyz FLL Research Project this year.  No doubt, many of the technologies, skills and insights we explored together this year you will encounter in your future education and careers.




Worst Inventions Evah


From the annals of “why didn’t I think of that of that”, a neck brush invention.

Five-year-old Tim Gregory wears, under protest, a brush that cleans a child’s neck without the use of soap and water in Los Angeles, California. The plastic collar brush will dry-clean the youngster’s neck thoroughly as he plays. The brush was developed by the Los Angeles Brush Corp. at a mother’s suggestion.

Read more funny inventions here.  And here is some info to consider in evaluating the potential of your groundbreaking invention.


Finally, a little presentation about what to do if you do stumble across the next greatest thing since sliced bread.


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 ecoSmart.xyz 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 ecoSmart.xyz 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 ecoSmart.xyz 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