The_Blockheads_team

These students don’t mind being called “Blockheads”

Go behind the scenes with a rookie FIRST LEGO League Team at the 2016 World Festival in St. Louis.

What do you get when you mix together a small group of five intelligent junior-high students, add two adult mentors with engineering degrees, supportive parents, community cooperation and bit of corporate sponsorship? It’s the perfect formula for a FIRST LEGO League (FLL) rookie team called the Blockheads from southeastern Kansas.

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Blockheads team member Jared Alliston (left) and mentor Michael Kader (right) make last-minute programming changes during a practice round at the World Festival.

A surprise win at their regional competition qualified the Blockheads to attend the prestigious FLL World Festival in St. Louis this year. The event has many elements including robot competition; and sessions where each team’s robot design, core values (teamwork), and sharing of research project findings are judged.

“The core values of FIRST LEGO League include discovery, cooperation, inclusion and integration,” said Jared Alliston, Blockhead team member and robot specialist.

More than robots

“I’m having a lot of fun,” said Jocelyn Goodwin, Blockhead team member as she stood in the pits during the World Festival. Pit stalls are spaced close together and resemble a cross between a mechanic’s garage and a science fair display. During the week-long event thousands of students, sponsors, parents and volunteers make their way through the pits each day to their designated work, competition and practice areas.

In addition to robot design and programming the Blockheads team interviewed city officials to gather more information for their research project focused on their community’s recycling and trash management efforts. This research was then crafted into their team presentations. At each FLL event, presentations are made in front of judges who apply a detailed rubric to evaluate and score each team.

Meet the Blockheads

Meet this FIRST LEGO League rookie team made up of five students, ages 12 to 14, and go behind the scenes with them as they compete at this year's World Festival.

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World Festival experience

World Festival is a colorful and noisy atmosphere with something exciting always happening. Large video screens broadcast live overhead views of robot matches. A public address system constantly broadcasts loud music and announcements to those in attendance.

Boisterous emcees announce each team with the same sort of flair you would see during a professional wrestling or boxing match. It’s a spectacle the students and parents say they will never forget.

FIRST estimates there are more than 29,000 FLL teams competing around the world last season from more than 80 countries.

“Our booth is set up right next to a Brazil team.” said Maddie Rutledge, Blockhead team member from Independence, Kan. One of her teammates, Grace Johnson, added, “It’s really fun to be able to interact with all of the different cultures and countries.”

A successful formula

FLL says their formula is successful and that 88% of the students that participate say they’re interested in doing well in school and 87% are interested in going to college.

Through event participation, teams like the Blockheads conduct research into real-world problems; design, build and test robots; apply real-world math and science concepts; learn critical thinking; participate in team-building; and practice presentation skills.

“FIRST is a unique global program that couples our funding with our amazing volunteers to help  youth develop valuable, real-world life-skills which is much more than robots. The experience is inspiring for both the students and the hundreds of John Deere employees and retirees who are volunteers,” said Patrick Barnes, program director, John Deere Inspire. Having ten John Deere supported teams at the FIRST World Championship this year was astounding!”

Problem solvers

The robot missions, as they’re called, can produce some real head-scratching moments at times that students and mentors are forced to work through and manage.

One mission involved the robot pushing a LEGO truck along a track. “It kind of threw me for a loop because when we tried to push the truck the robot started going towards it. So, we had to make one of the wheels spin faster than the other,” Daniel Richmond-Reck, Blockhead team member from Coffeyville, Kan., explained.

The Blockheads are led by two mentors that work for John Deere Coffeyville Works. Lashun Oakley and Michael Kader are both young engineers. Just a few years ago, Oakley was a high-school student competing at FIRST Robotics Competitions similar to the students she now mentors.

Community and team effort

Seven months before the World Festival the team met one Monday each month with their mentors to work on the project. “They’re very smart and they know what’s going on. They’re very focused on science and technology,” Oakley said.

The Blockheads were founded with the help of a cooperative organization called Greenbush and a grant from the John Deere Inspire program. Greenbush offers educational programs that may otherwise be unavailable or too costly for small, individual schools to pursue by themselves.

Working with Greenbush, a group of area schools are able to combine their resources and maximize their educational funding efforts. Through the gifted program that Greenbush sponsors the students were able to sign up to participate on the FLL team.

Applications for John Deere FIRST team grants for the 2016-2017 season are now being accepted here .

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These students don’t mind being called “Blockheads”

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