Skip to content ↓

A Few Lessons from FLL by Stu Schmill '86

Spring is the season when students across the country are making choices: high school seniors are choosing where they are going to college (we just finished hosting Campus Preview Weekend to help our admitted students make their decision), high school juniors are choosing where they might want to apply to college, and high school freshmen and sophomores (and even my sixth grade daughter!) are choosing what classes to take next year. So this time of year I am asked all the time for advice on what choices students should make to help their chances of coming to MIT.

As I recently wrote in an op-ed piece for the higher ed website Inside Higher Ed, the best thing a student can do is whatever will advance his or her personal growth and genuine enthusiasm for learning.

In the piece I cite the FIRST robotics competition as one of many excellent and worthwhile activities a student might do. While many MIT students have participated in FIRST, last year I had the good fortune of experiencing FIRST through the eyes of my daughter, who was on a FIRST Lego League (FLL) team. And, as I am gearing up to head to St. Louis for the FIRST World Championships in a few days, I thought I would share a bit of my experience with the program.

(Actually, my first experience with a FIRST-like program was in Woodie Flowers’ 2.70 design class at MIT – a story for another day.)

The FLL program is the elementary and middle school version of the FIRST robotics competition. There are two elements to the program: a robotics competition and a project where the team identifies and develops a solution to a real world problem. Each year there is a theme to the robot game and the project. Last year’s theme, “Food Factor,” explored food safety and the challenge of keeping food from spoiling. But here is the key reason that I found FLL so valuable: the robot game and the project are overlaid with a third, arguably more important, element: the FLL Core Values.

These core values, such as teamwork, discovery, and the notion that your competitors are really your collaborators, are the real insight into this program. Teams get evaluated based on how well they live these core values. You get judged not only on how many points your robot scores during the tournament and how good a solution you develop for the project, but also on your process – the teamwork, intentions, and values that you bring to it. How accepting was the group to different ideas? Did all members contribute? Were your mentors appropriately involved (i.e., guiding, but not doing)?

And so the winning teams are not necessarily the ones that have the highest scoring robots or the most elegant designs (although these are good things). The process, intentions, attitudes, etc. – all the good stuff that allows teams to succeed and sets young people up for success in life – is what is judged and what is rewarded. As every engineer knows, you get what you measure, and as every parent knows, you get what you reward. The key is to measure and reward the outcomes you want. And FIRST is doing exactly that.

Imagine if sports championships were won not only based on how many points you scored, but by how well your team worked together and solved problems, and how much you respected and even assisted your opponents?

My daughter’s team learned an enormous amount about how to design and program a robot. They learned that by jumping in and trying things, you can learn to do something that just weeks before seemed impossibly hard. They learned how to build things that wouldn’t break (by building things that did), that it is actually good to change your direction once you realize it needs to change (by hanging on too long and then panicking), that getting ideas from others on the team actually didn’t mess everything up, and they learned to focus, ultimately building a robot that did a few tasks well rather then one that did many not so well.

They also learned a lot about food safety. They learned that it is not so easy to keep food from spoiling. They learned to do research before identifying a problem to solve. They learned how to brainstorm possible solutions, and then compromise to agree on one to focus. And they learned that everyone had something unique they could contribute to the solution (including a team member who contributed his ventriloquism skills to the presentation!).

What is clear is that the learning that takes place in FIRST is not abstract: it is real and accessible. Indeed, it is not only real, it is aligned with what we want student to learn. Programs like FIRST get students excited about working together, emphasizing that competition is more valuable when it is not about beating your opponent but when it is used to lift everyone up. This is exactly the type of experience our students need to be prepared to meet the challenges that the world faces.