Saturday, December 17, 2005

Robotics Practice Tournament - How it was organized

I was very, very anxious about this event, because I really didn't know what to expect, because I was bringing my own laptop and I was afraid it might get damaged or stolen, because I was meeting kids on a Saturday and taking them to Fordham University, which I don't know very well, because parents were going to think I was an idiot when they figured out that I had no idea what to expect, because the kids might flake out, because the kids might show up and act crazy, because the kids might be bored out of their minds or disappointed and frustrated by not really having a robot... I dreamed about the robotics tournament and woke up every hour. They were extremely vivid dreams given that I had no idea what to expect. If it seems like I am stressing the idea of not knowing what to expect, I am. I'm a visualizer. I am confident when I can picture a situation and how things are going to happen. I'm writing this post in part so that the powers that be in robotics can pass it on to first time coaches next year to help them visualize how a tournament works (thus, I am going to describe the day in a horrifying level of detail, sorry for those of you who are driven to narcolepsy by this post).

I got up at six and was in the Bronx by 7:30. Because my school is far from any train stations, I agreed to meet kids at a McDonald's close to a major train station. When I walked in, a couple of kids from my school were there, eating breakfast. It seemed like quite a coincidence given that they are not in robotics, but it turned out that the chess coach was using the same meeting place to take them to a chess tournament in Brooklyn. I met two of my students at McDonalds, but the second was over 30 minutes late, so I was already far behind schedule. Luckily, I'd allowed a lot of extra time because I knew that would happen. It's just as hard for a sixth grader to wake up at 7 on a Saturday as it is for his 20-something teacher!

We met the other four kids at Fordham. The tournament was held in a ballroom sort of space, divided into two rooms. In the first room, each team had a "pit" (like in car racing) - half of a table and a few chairs. That's where we kept our Legos, my laptop, and our snacks, and that's where we hung out while waiting for our turn to compete. There was also at least one practice table where kids could take their robot and test it on the playing field. In the center of the other room, there were several playing fields set up on tables, in pairs. That area was cordoned off so that only judges and team members could enter it. The surrounding area was for spectators. One really smart aspect of the tournament organization was that they had separate entrances for the competitors and the spectators. Each room had a huge screen where they showed the current score of each team in ranked order. Down a hallway from the two main rooms were a few conference rooms - one for research presentations, one for technical presentations, and one for workshops.

Here's how the day was organized. There were five rounds (six were scheduled, but they fell behind and cancelled the last round). Each round consisted of a series of matches. My team was in the first match of each round. We received a schedule telling us the time of each match and which table we were competing at. The organizers would announce the teams that were competing as well as those that should be on deck, although these announcements began to get a bit confusing as the tournament fell behind schedule. There were also a zillion volunteers - high school and college students - wearing black FLL t-shirts, who did everything from scoring to judging teamwork to rounding up teams that had failed to show up at the appointed time & place for their match. Only two kids can operate the robot at a time, so when it was time for us to enter the competition room, I would walk them in and stay with them until their match started. The other kids would watch from the spectator area. I set up a schedule so that two different kids would operate the robot during each round. Before each match, the announcers ask the students if they are ready - they raise their hands - then the judges, then they do a countdown and start a big digital clock. The kids get 2 1/2 minutes for each match, which sounds short but is actually quite a long time when you are out there. It was enough time for our robot to fall apart & get almost completely repaired during our first match! When the match ends, the kids leave, the judges tally, and the next teams start. We had about 20-30 minutes between rounds, during which time the kids frantically adjusted their robot, wrote new programs, tested it on the practice table, etc.

That much was simple enough. What made the day completely schizophrenic was that the research and technical presentations were happening simultaneously. We knew our competition times from the schedule, but it was just too much to keep track of. Luckily, the volunteers rounded us up and helped us find the correct rooms for that competition. Since my kids really had nothing prepared for the technical presentation, and have barely begun their research on oil spills for the research presentation, they just kind of sat down and talked to the judges, who were all really nice about it, and took them seriously, which was encouraging.

Oh yeah, in addition to all that, judges with clipboards were walking around the pit area, interviewing teams for the teamwork, team spirit, and judges' awards. We had to make sure at least one or two students stayed at our table at all times so that they could talk to the judges if they came by.

So basically, the room was full of students, parents, coaches, and volunteers rushing about, robots circling on the floor, snacks and laptops and Lego bins everywhere. Many teams had elaborate, spirited cheers and chants, the announcers were constantly trying to whip up the kids' energy - "When I say LEGO, you say league!" "LEGO!" "League!" - other announcers were calling teams to the competition, and it was totally, totally overstimulating. Nevertheless, everyone seemed to deal with it very well. There was a lot going on at any one time, but most people knew where they were supposed to be (or figured it out quickly enough), everyone was busy, and most people were having fun. I saw absolutely no inappropriate behavior from any of the children - mine or those from other schools - and all the adults seemed to be working together to make it a positive experience for everyone.

At the end of the day, after the last round, we all gathered in the competition room - they pushed the playing fields out of the way - and plaques of participation were given out, along with about a dozen awards for performance, tech presentation, research presentation, teamwork, and more...

I am in awe of the coaches who somehow manage to have their kids prepare skits about the ocean, display boards about how inertia works in their robot, robots that complete missions, chants and cheers for tournament day, and more. Absolutely in awe. Do they meet every day? Or are they just extraordinarily productive?

(One thing that would have helped me out immensely would have been an explanation of the role of coaches at the tournament. For example, some of the volunteers would not allow my kids into the competition area unless I was with them, while others did not require me to be there. And it was a little unclear to me what coaches were supposed to do while our kids were doing the technical and research presentations - the judges allowed me to sit with my kids, silently, of course, but I'm still not sure if they were just being nice to us because we were so obviously new to the whole thing).

I am going to work very hard to recruit parents to attend the tournament in January. I would say that a team needs a minimum of four adults - one to stay at the pit with the team's belongings and to supervise the kids in the pit area, one to escort the kids to and from the competition area and to cheer them on during competition and to supervise the kids who are cheering, one to make sure the kids show up at the research and technical presentations on time and to support them during those parts of the competition, and one to take pictures and provide relief for the other adults! I also think that videotaping the robot during performance might be helpful to the team, so they can review what actually happened when they go home, and troubleshoot - it all happens too fast to really see or remember exactly which part of the robot broke first, or why it veered off towards the wall rather than heading straight for the dolphin cage....


Blogger Amerloc said...

You just did a wonderful job of creating a post as frenetic as the day must have been. Sweet.

And you've ALMOST made me wish to be in the area next competition, just to help out...

8:43 PM  
Anonymous norm said...


There are competitions in practically every state. Check out the website for more info. All tournaments recruit loads of volunteers for the LEGO (9-14 yrs old) and the high school events.

10:22 PM  

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