FIRST of many pieces

Local team to compete in Lego-building championship

Local team to compete in Lego-building championship

December 11, 2009|By CHRIS COPLEY

Robotics. Computer programming. Structural engineering. Road navigation. Legos.


Yes, Legos. The Danish-invented system of interlocking plastic blocks used by generations of children is the basis for the FIRST Lego League (FLL), a national science and technology organization for students aged 9 to 14.

The FLL competition involves designing, building and programming a robot, researching solutions to local, real-life problems and learning to work as a team.

Williamsport mom Chris Truax coaches a team of students in the FLL competition. The kids, she said, have had fun building and programming their robot. They've learned a lot.


"My daughter has been challenged, which is what she's been looking for for a long time in math and science. She wants to go further and hasn't had the opportunity," she said. "And she's learned that there are other kids out there like she is."

But Truax said she has been impressed with the ways her team's members have matured.

"I've seen each of them grow, too," Truax said. "The younger boys have gained confidence. Another boy on the team was very quiet, and he didn't like being assigned to the research part. But I've seen him open up and take charge."

Truax's team and another Washington County FLL team will compete at a regional qualifying competition Saturday, Dec. 12, in Garrett County, Md. Teams that qualify will advance to the Maryland FLL championship Jan. 30 in Baltimore.

FIRST competition

FIRST, which stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, sponsors annual competitions for students from kindergarten through high school. The stated goal is for teams to apply math and science concepts to real-world problems. While solving the challenge, teams also tackle how to research a problem, how to work as a team, how to make formal presentations, and other related topics.

The FLL competition is similar to Destination Imagination, according to Bill Von Alt, a Williamsport resident who coaches two junior-level FLL teams. National FLL organizers come up with a new theme each year and devise theme-related challenges. Teams of students create solutions, advised by adults. The intent is that students come up with their own solutions to the challenge.

This year's FLL challenge is Smart Move, a transportation-themed challenge. For the robot-building portion of the competition, students designed and built a robot that would accomplish a series of objectives laid out on an 8-foot-by-4-foot "playing field," including: getting a vehicle off a ramp; going around some playing-field features but knocking over others; and going under and then over a bridge.

Teams purchase a preassembled kit of Lego parts used to build the challenge gameboard and its features and to build the team's robot. The design is determined by team members. Truax's students created a robot with wheels. The other Washington County team based theirs on treads.

A family affair

Truax said her 11-year-old daughter, Jordyn, inspired her to get involved.

"I went with my daughter to practices for the FIRST Robotics Competition last year. And they had a high school robotics competition," Truax said. "Jordyn asked me at that point if I would get information."

Coincidentally, Von Alt, a friend of Truax's - both were Cub Scout parents - attended the same event with his son, Liam, now a third-grader. Later, the two talked and decided to establish FLL teams in Washington County.

Von Alt and Truax recruited coaches and students and formed four teams - two teams of 9- to 14-year-olds and two teams of 6- to 9-year-olds. The teams have been meeting twice weekly since early September to develop their projects in response to the FLL challenges.

Equal opportunity

Jordyn Truax is the only girl among students on the Washington County FLL teams. But she feels right at home.

"I enjoy math and science in school. I want to be a mechanical engineer when I grow up," she said during practice a week before the competition.

Jordyn and teammate Zack El-Mohandes, 13, were elected to be the team's robot designer-builders. Zack said he enjoyed the competition in part because he had played with Lego blocks for nearly a decade.

"I got my first set when I was 4. It was actually pretty fun," he said. "When I used my Legos, I used them a lot, but I didn't get to do anything amazing until this. Now, I get to apply all I know."

Von Alt said his son has loved team practices. But as a natural leader with good ideas, Liam had to learn people skills.

"The biggest benefit I've seen for my son is learning to work as a team," he said. "Leadership is not about bossing the others around. Others need to be accommodated. Being bright is not the same as leadership."

For more information about starting a team in Washington County, e-mail Truax or Von Alt at or go to

If you go ...

WHAT: Garrett FIRST Lego League Qualifier, one of nine qualifying events for the Maryland championship.

WHERE: Northern Garrett High School, 86 Pride Parkway, Accident, Md., in Garrett County

WHEN: Opening ceremony at 9 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 12; awards ceremony at 2 p.m.


COST: Admission is free

MORE: Ten teams are competing, including two from Washington County. Winners will advance to the Maryland FLL championship Jan. 30 at University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

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