Last Christmas my daughter’s number one, must-have gift was a Lego Mindstorms kit. She started asking for it somewhere around September and didn’t stop until she ripped the paper off the box on Christmas morning. We knew it was a hit within minutes because our kitchen table, which was supposed to be holding brunch in a few hours, was covered with Lego bricks and wires and parts. By New Year’s she was begging to go to “robot camp” in the summer and, it turns out, it was like Christmas morning all over again in July.
FIRST was founded in Manchester, New Hampshire in 1989 by inventor Dean Kamen. You probably associate his name with Segway personal transports, but his inventions are only part of his work. FIRST stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology” and is part of Kamen’s mission to promote his own love of science and technology. One of his most well-known efforts is FIRST Lego League, which reaches kids as young as six years old.
We live in New Hampshire, so FIRST Place is only about 20 minutes away, which makes attending a summer camp easy. I signed my daughter up for the Junior Invention Challenge which was geared to kids ages 9-11 and required no previous experience. Although she’d built her own Mindstorms robot, ripped it apart, rebuilt it and ripped it apart again more times than I could count, she’d never been part of a team so I figured this would be a good place to start.
She was nervous and excited. The idea of building robots with other kids and making those robots do things and work in ways she’d never thought of before was exciting, but these were kids she didn’t know and that was scary. I told her that working with a team was part of what she’d learn, and that figuring out how to incorporate everyone’s ideas and opinions might be tough, but that she could do it if she tried.
The minute we walked into FIRST Place her eyes lit up. It’s inside an old brick mill building that’s been gutted and refurbished so the space is long and open. When you walk through the door, the first thing you see is a wall of t-shirts from FIRST Lego League teams from around the world. A few steps further, and you’re met by a long row of workstations all ready to go. And was she ever ready.
When you send your kid to camp, any camp, you always hold your breath a little when you go to pick them up after that first day. You’ve likely scoured a lot of different options, talked about it endlessly, debated the cost and the transportation and what you think your child will like until you’ve decided on a camp. But you never really know how they’re going to like it until they’ve got a day under their belt.
I arrived to pick her up and saw her happily sitting with a bunch of other kids in bean bag chairs. She didn’t see me because she was too wrapped up in what her counselor was saying to the group. When she did see me, she bounced up, grabbed her lunchbag and started talking, non-stop, about her wonderful, amazing and challenging day. Insert parental sigh of relief here.
Each day they worked on perfecting their robots with a goal of completing several tasks on a pre-determined course at the end of the week. They didn’t have to complete every task, but as many as they were able. My daughter loved the problem solving and talked at length about trying again and again to get just the right wheels on her robot so it could manage the obstacles she and her teammate had chosen.
Her teammate had experience in FIRST Lego League which was, in some ways, a challenge for her. She figured that because he’d done it before that he knew best, even though sometimes his ideas didn’t work. Although a bit frustrating for her, as a parent I was thrilled because it forced her to voice her opinion and learn to work as part of a team. By the end of the week she was confidently moving forward with her ideas and the two of them came up with a fantastic little robot.
The highlight of the week was on Friday afternoon when a demonstration was held and all the parents could see the fruits of their child’s labors. As much as I’d been impressed with what I saw my daughter learning through her conversations with me each night, I was blown away seeing the kids and counselors in action.
It wasn’t that their robots were amazing, although it was fascinating to see 11 completely different robots all designed to complete the same tasks, but that the attitudes of the children and counselors were so positive and supportive. After a brief intro from the adults in charge, the mic got handed off to the teen-aged assistants who each introduced themselves. These were all kids who’d been involved in FIRST Lego League and were excited to help younger kids get involved.
It was time for the teams to take center stage, and that’s exactly what happened. The kids put their robots on the table, took the mic, and talked about themselves and their robots. This truly was their show and they were the ones explaining the problems and successes they’d had during the week. Many of the teams didn’t succeed, but here’s the best part: The parents, the counselors, the teenagers and the other teams still cheered them on and shared in their joy and sadness.
No one was happy because the other guy’s robot failed. The other teams were genuinely rooting for each other to complete the course. It wasn’t a matter of beating the other guy down and taking joy in his failure, but of lifting him up and supporting his efforts. All these little teams were really one big team.
The decision had been made by the middle of the week that my daughter would see about joining a FIRST Lego League team because she was in love with the whole process. And I have to admit, after seeing the excitement, enthusiasm and supportive environment inside FIRST Place, I’m the one as excited as a kid on Christmas as I wait to see what my daughter does next.