I just finished my rookie year as a FIRST Lego League coach, and I think it’s time I shared some of the things I learned over the last year. About 18 months ago, I started looking for a FIRST Lego League team for my son, Johnny, to join. He received a Lego Mindstorms EV3 robot for Christmas 2013 and was very excited to program with it. His elementary school didn’t have a team, and I wasn’t able to find a team with an opening nearby. Before I knew it, I was organizing a team at his school and volunteering to coach it. I recently left my career as a software engineer due to several major life events, and I decided that it was time to put my computer skills back to good use working with kids.
Did I know what I was getting myself into? Not really. Am I sorry I signed up? Absolutely not!
Secretly, I don’t think I got to play with Lego bricks enough when I was a kid, and I’ve always had my eyes on that super cool robot I would see at local museums. I wanted to play too, and coaching would let me do both!
What specifically is FIRST? From the FIRST website:
“Dean Kamen is an inventor, entrepreneur, and tireless advocate for science and technology. His passion and determination to help young people discover the excitement and rewards of science and technology are the cornerstones of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology).
FIRST was founded in 1989 to inspire young people’s interest and participation in science and technology. Based in Manchester, NH, the 501 (c) (3) not-for-profit public charity designs accessible, innovative programs that motivate young people to pursue education and career opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math, while building self-confidence, knowledge, and life skills.”
First offers the following programs for kids from kindergarten through high school:
But why should you volunteer? Consider these 5 reasons:
- The kids need you! Without volunteers, there is no FIRST. Last year, it took 180,000 volunteers to run all the programs and events worldwide, in 80 countries, supporting 400,000 kids learning and competing. That’s coaches, assistant coaches, referees, judges, mentors, set-up crews, clean-up crews, check-in staff, and of course parents just to name a few of the many volunteer roles. As a coach, you are a facilitator. The kids do the work; you provide the environment. You don’t have to be an expert programmer. Maybe you aren’t up to coaching, but could you spare a few hours one afternoon to train and one Saturday a year to judge at a FIRST regional event? I bet you could.
- Your child needs you! If you have a child that’s interested in math and robotics, of course you want to nourish that passion. One of the best ways to do that is by getting involved yourself. There are many ways you can help your child’s team. You can raise funds for additional equipment; I don’t know a team that wouldn’t like more EV3 bricks or sensors. You can chaperon at a local or regional event; the coaches can always use extra help keeping up with the kids at big events. You could make a team banner for event parades or buttons for the kids to exchange with other team in the event pit areas. If you have carpentry skills, your team may need help building a competition table. There’s no shortage of things FIRST teams could use help with.
- Keep your skills sharp! Being a FIRST Lego League coach really kept my skills sharp. I had to create slides to sell the idea of having a team to the PTA and to advertise team accomplishments. I created spreadsheets with student names and contact information. I taught myself about the EV3 robot by reading and reading some more. I had a crash course in classroom management skills. I developed a real appreciation for what it takes to be a teacher–the lesson plans, the time management, the discipline. Your involvement with FIRST could be a bright spot on a future resume.
- Imagine the opportunities! There’s room for growth in all our lives. Whether it’s skills you pick up, people you meet, or challenges you fulfill, there are a lot of opportunities if you volunteer for FIRST programs. I made new friends, strengthened my negotiating skills, and refreshed my programming abilities.
- You can make a difference! If even one child on your team or at your event is inspired to achieve more in life than they would have been without your involvement, wouldn’t that be worth it? I have fantasies about all the kids on my FIRST Lego League team going on to a STEM-related field. I know that’s not realistic, but I bet when they get to their first programming class in high school or college, they remember their time on my team. The first time they have to present in front of their peers, they’ll remember all the times they had to explain what they were doing to FIRST judges and referees. They’ll take with them pride in a job well done, and they’ll know what it takes to work well together with other people on a team. Those are all incredibly valuable skills for their future employer.
Need more motivation to volunteer? Watch this video from our successful FIRST Lego League year.
I’ll admit it, there were a few low spots in our year. I cried the day I tried to demo robot line following to the kids and nothing worked right. I was frustrated the day the kids just couldn’t behave, and we didn’t make any progress toward our goals. Sometimes I struggled to guide all the kids in a way meaningful to them. There were days I was sick, days I ran out of prep time, and days when nothing seemed to go right. However, at the end of the day and year, I’d do it all over again! And as a matter of fact, I did volunteer to do it all over again next year.