This year's First Lego League challenged youngsters to build projects to help the elderly.
The word 'Lego' conjures up many images for many people: the joy of completing a major building project; happy hours hidden behind the sofa creating your own world; the sound of tipping a tin of the brightly-coloured bricks over the floor; the pain of treading on them in bare feet...
But it is more than just a much-loved toy; for many it can be the start of a passion for engineering. One example of this is the way that the Lego Mindstorms components can stimulate enthusiasm for robotics. Indeed, Mindstorms bricks are even used in some university teaching.
Lego Mindstorms also plays a key role in a major international competition for school pupils, the FIRST Lego League (FLL). This competition was started in 1998 by FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a US charity that aims to inspire young people's interest and participation in science and technology, and the Lego Group. The FLL is an international robotics programme for 9 to 16-year-olds that involves designing, building and using a robot, doing a design project and demonstrating teamwork.
The aims, according to Ahmed Kotb, FLL project manager of the IET, which has recently taken on the role of UK operational partner for the competition, are to try to encourage young people to get excited about and involved in engineering and other STEM subjects. "This project gets young minds enthused about the possibilities of engineering – and everyone knows and loves Lego," he explains.
Sixth former Sam Mason, who participated in FLL in the past and this year was coach to the UK's winning team, agrees: "I think the main benefits come from gaining skills that are not only useful in today's workplace but in life in general. Competing in the FLL gave me confidence, made me a better communicator and team player and has helped me not be afraid to try new things. It has also taught me to look critically at my own work in order to improve the final result."
The UK leg of the competition recently concluded with 21 teams braving snow to travel from all over the country to compete against each other in a nail-biting final at Loughborough University.
Although this final took place on a Saturday in January, teams have been working on their entries for months. As Kotb says, involvement began when teams signed up last April. This was followed by a simultaneous, worldwide release of the challenge at the end of August and a list of the permitted Lego components and kit required being released in the first week in September.
Teams of up to 10 pupils then had September, October and November to work on their projects and design and build their robots. Regional tournaments took place in November and December and this year there were 18 of these held around the country, in universities, schools, museums and technology companies.
Both the projects and the tasks the robots need to do follow a particular theme each year and the current theme is "senior solutions". For their projects, the teams needed to speak to somebody aged over 60 and find out about the challenges that they face. They then needed to consider how technology could help these people and present their concept, and how they researched it, to the judges.
Ideas presented in the competition included things such as systems for automatic pill dispensing among others. The concept devised by Untitled 1, the winning team, was to incorporate fingerprint recognition technology into doorbells so that people who struggle with mobility or memory problems could be easily alerted to, or reminded of, who is at the door. It could also be used, for example, to automate access for regular carers in situations where an older person might have trouble getting to the door.
"The final was an incredible event showing some unbelievable talent in students as young as nine. The judges had a hard time trying to decide between such innovative projects, but Untitled 1's fingerprint-recognition doorbell really empathised with the needs of elderly people," says the IET's Kotb.
Team coach Sam Mason explains how the team came up with the concept: "The idea for the fingerprint-scanning doorbell device came from looking at the problems faced by David [a member of the team]'s senior partner, who was bedridden and therefore found it hard to know who was at the door.
"Having come up with their idea, they presented it to Bath Institute of Mechanical Engineers (BIME) and also asked as many old people as possible whether they thought the device would be useful to them," continues Mason. "They visited an Age UK day centre to find out what the people there thought. From talking to people the solution has been refined and matured and it has become apparent that a wider audience than initially anticipated would be interested in the product."
The robot element to the challenge picked up on the same theme. The teams had to build a robot using Lego Mindstorms NXT and program it to complete a range of tasks on a specified Lego course. These included lifting Lego medicine bottles, planting Lego flowers and moving a Lego chair under a Lego table.
"They refine as they go; some teams that won at regional events refined their robots before the final," says Kotb. "They are given time and space to practise on tournament days and there are always little things that need tweaking, for example the light sensors. They will test and refine them; this is what engineers do." Kotb notes that next year's competition will benefit from Lego's new – and more accurate – Mindstorms EV3 set.
The teams were also judged on how well they worked together and showed core values such as "gracious professionalism" and "coopetition". As Kotb explains: "They have to work together, even when they are different ages, in different school years and even different schools."
Teams scored points in all these areas, with the top eight teams going on to the quarter finals. The final had the same format as the regional heats but, of course, the'competition was stiffer. "You could feel the tension in the room," says Kotb. Parents, siblings and friends also came along to cheer on their teams, adding to the atmosphere.
A range of prizes were given out at the UK finals – for excellence in each of the areas of the competition – as well as overall champions and runners up.
The competition does not end there though. The overall champions, who came from King Edward's School and Ralph Allen, two secondary schools in the Bath area, can look forward to competing in the international finals at the FLL World Festival, which will be held in St Louis, USA in April. The runners up, Langton Lions from Simon Langton Boys Grammar School in Kent, will go on to compete in the Open European Championships in Paderborn, Germany in May. Understandably, these teams are delighted and excited about what's coming up next.
"I felt very proud after we had won the competition. I am very excited about going to America for the final but I am not nervous about how we will do," says Max, a 13-year-old from the Untitled 1 team.
Team-mate Dani, aged 15, agrees: "I felt amazing after the win and I'm very excited about America. I am more excited than nervous about the final because America is our prize and I just want to enjoy it."
"It's going to be awesome!" adds Claudia, 11. "I am excited about absolutely everything to do with the finals in Missouri, including missing school for a holiday in America! I'm going to try not to fret about anything if it can be helped; I am just going to make the most of it and have lots and lots of fun."
For these pupils, the competition certainly seemed to live up to its goals – and it wasn't just about winning either. The pupils all highlighted how much they enjoyed being part of the event, working together and learning from each other.
"I enjoyed getting to work with friends in a team. I also enjoyed talking with other teams about their robot designs and project ideas," says Tom, 14.
Freya, also aged 14, adds: "What I've really enjoyed about the competition has been working with new people and developing skills."
Part of the enjoyment of the project seemed to come from the chance to tackle challenges together, such as getting the robots to perform on the day as well as they had in practices.
"In my personal opinion, the greatest challenge was confidence. I have done robotics for three years now and my confidence has grown greatly but still there are nerves on the day. The thing is to act confident even if you're not, but not over confident as to sound cocky," explains 11-year-old Joe.
"The biggest challenges were probably learning about the robot and doing all the research, but they were also the most rewarding and fun," adds Freya.
And there were practical issues too, because FLL requires a significant amount of work as it is generally run as an extra-curricular activity and teams sometimes meet at each other's homes at weekends. As Tom explains: "The biggest challenges were meeting up because we did it outside of school time."
Despite the effort required, they would all encourage other pupils to get involved in future competitions. "Do it as you will have a lot of fun and it is worth it," says Rafi, 12.
"I would say to anyone doing it next year that it is a great experience and very worthwhile, it teaches you very useful skills and enjoyable," agrees team mate Dani.
"Anyone thinking of competing in FLL shouldn't hesitate," says Tom. "I've done it a few years now and I am upset that this is the last year I can do it. But it is such a good thing for kids to compete in because it encourages teamwork and problem solving, which are two of the best qualities a person can have."
But the last word goes to Joe from the winning team: "You will have so much fun whether you win or lose. It is also a great experience if anyone wants to go into engineering. Please, please just don't be too good because I want to do it next year too."