Expanding the FIRST Program


Special to CV Weekly

It’s that time of year again – school classrooms and after-school program hallways are filled with the whirr and clatter of autonomously programmed robots completing challenging robotic missions. FIRST Lego League (FLL) is in full swing, and more than 14 local teams have sprouted up at schools and clubs in our valley. 

FIRST stands for: For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. This organization has four levels of robotic challenges designed to involve students of all ages in games that require practical application of their knowledge in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). FIRST’s mission is to “inspire young people to be science and technology leaders, by engaging them in exciting mentor-based programs that build science, engineering and technology skills, that inspire innovation, and that foster well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication, and leadership.”

Several local high schools, including Crescenta Valley, La Cañada, and Clark Magnet, have participated for years in the most advanced level of the FIRST program, FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC). FRC challenges high school students to design and build, from the ground up, a fully functional, five-foot tall, 120-pound robot in accordance with a new game designed each year. The game challenge is issued in January and teams have a mere six weeks to build and program their robot. Under the watchful eye of adult mentors, all of the work is student-led: teams are structured so that students analyze, strategize, design, engineer, fabricate and program all elements of the robot and game strategy. On average, team members each spend more than 20 hours a week brainstorming, collaborating, machining, welding, wiring, testing, driving and programming the robot. In March, teams meet up at regional competitions where they use their robots, their strategies and their minds to compete at being the best to play the game for a shot at the international championship in Houston.

Crescenta Valley High School’s FRC team, Falkon Robotics Team 589, enjoys this program so much that the team members wanted to do more so they set into motion a plan to expand FIRST program participation to nearby middle and elementary schools. In partnership with teachers, support administrators and parents, they mentor 10 FIRST Lego League (FLL) teams through local schools and community organizations. These dedicated high school students meet with each of these teams weekly, helping the younger students understand the FLL game challenges, strategize on mission sequence, conceptualize and execute efficient robot design, and learn basic programming so that the robot can compete. Crescenta Valley students are mentoring FLL teams at Monte Vista Elementary, Valley View Elementary and through Girl Scouts of Greater Los Angeles.

This year’s FLL challenge is called City Shaper – recognizing the importance of engineering in shaping the cities of today and envisioning changes to make cities of the future more efficient and resilient. The “robot game” has 14 missions that can be completed in any sequence a team chooses, if at all. Team members use the Lego EV3 Mindstorms kit and software to build and program a robot that can solve game challenges, whether that be pushing a lever to activate a Lego crane, stack modular Lego buildings in strategic locations or activating a unique playground swing designed to give access to uniquely capable individuals. The mission pieces are all built of Legos, and the robot must also be built entirely of Lego pieces as well. In addition to the robot game, there are two additional, equally important elements to the FLL challenge: the research project and the FLL core values.

Teams must identify a problem with a building or public space in their community, design an innovative solution to address the problem and share their research with others, including experts, in order to refine their solution. As they work together on the project and robot game, teams put in to practice the FLL core values of teamwork, cooperation, friendly competition, learning by doing and, most important of all, having fun. FIRST claims that participation in these robotic programs are “the hardest fun you’ll ever have” – and, as a mentor, I believe all of the kids involved in FIRST – from FLL to FRC – would wholeheartedly agree! 

There’s space available in the Girl Scout program for additional participants. The program is open to girls ages 9 to 14 (fourth to eighth grade). Meetings are every Sunday from 2 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Girls must either be registered Girl Scouts or must register as independent Girl Scouts in order to participate.

For more information, contact Lyn Repath-Martos at Lyn@cvrobots.com.