How Four Kids LEGO of Self-Doubt and (MIND)STORMed the Castle

You know how I don’t like to spend Saturday? Watching kids play with Lego bricks. Especially if I’m not allowed to play with them myself. So how I found myself driving three sixth grade Montessori boys (one of them my own spawn) and offering to spend the entire day in an auditorium watching nineteen teams of four build Lego robots, then watch them try to push three other Lego robots out of a taped circle again and again, is beyond me.

As we drove to the school that morning, we discussed the benefits of being the underdogs. I asked what their expectations were, and they admitted they didn’t expect to win. Whew! I pointed out that they were relieved of the stress and expectations that sometimes hinder other kids. I reminded them that they were there to have fun, not because anyone else was pushing them to participate (if anything, the parents would have preferred not busying up their Saturday).

We arrived, checked in, and met up with the fourth kid, who brought the school’s supply of Lego bricks that they’d be using.

Right before build time began, the organizers announced a specification that the robots would have to meet to prevent building before the show, and those specifications included a requirement that the robots must be at least 35 cm long. Then the kids had two hours to build, followed by a mandatory one hour lunch break (where nobody was allowed in the gym), and then an additional one hour ‘final adjustment’ period.

Then the competition would begin.

As the boys worked on assembling a robot of their own design, I sat with the fourth kid’s mom, discussing all things non-Lego (she even brought her knitting, and I a novel to read).

Two concentric circles marked the field of play: an outer one for the humans to stay out of, and an inner one for the robots to stay in. Each round lasted five minutes, during which four robots, remote controlled by their humans, had to push the other three robots out of the inner circle (determined by when the entire control panel was outside the circle). Two judges worked each of the two fields of play.

Photo Credit: N Engineer
Photo Credit: N Engineer

By lunch time, the four Montessorians had not yet gotten their robot to move. While the other eighteen teams used the newer generation EV3 machines, their team was using the older NXT, which was bulkier and evidently had a harder time connecting to the remote. Indeed, one boy had to search early that morning for an app to download to control the NXT device. Evidently all the apps in the Apple store connect only to EV3, so he had to borrow the family’s sole Android tablet to install a working app, which worked insofar as they had to keep monitoring the connection regularly so as not to lose it and start over.

Lunch was a little stressful. The other teams had already begun practicing, the telltale whirr of their devices filling the auditorium air and echoing in everyone’s minds as they worried about how their bulky self-designed glorified dune buggy would stay connected to the wheels that seemed none too happy about the weight they were being asked to support.

Back at their school, when they had first learned of the event, their science teacher had intentionally spent a total of fifteen minutes guiding them, mostly helping install software and getting them started. Then, she adopted a hands-off Montessori approach and the kids explored on their own.

At the competition, the other mother left during lunch, and I became the team’s de facto coach. Now, I am not a teacher, have never coached, and while I have played with Legos, the closest I had ever come to Lego Mindstorms is sitting on the chair near the table in that gym where the kids were working. However, I do have a Master’s in Computer Science, and am the parent of multiple kids, so I suppose I was qualified.

What these kids needed was a project manager. And job number one was managing panic.

Photo Credit: N Engineer
The boys strategize solutions. Photo Credit: N Engineer

After lunch, I asked them to determine what needed to be done, to come up with three possible solutions ahead of time, and to decide who would do what. One kid (the Android owner) was in charge of maintaining the connection to the device. As the weight of their vehicle made the center bow, they needed to support the center. They discussed different strategies, decided on the order they would attempt them, and ultimately settled on placing one long brick down the center to serve as a ‘ski’ that prevented bowing.

They returned to the gym and got to work. I sat back down and read my book, back to my comfortable detachment. I’d like to speak to how they embraced my management approach, but I honestly have no idea; I wasn’t paying attention.

Every once in a while, I would tell them the time, but other than that, they were on their own. And before time was up, they even went to the arena for a practice round, returning to their table to tweak their design as a result of what they had learned.

Then the competition began. Android boy’s family came, his two younger brothers eager to watch. The Montessorians made their way to the ring, and the five of us sat in the bleachers. The match began ominously, as their robot was stuck. They couldn’t get it to move forward onto the field. The gear had slipped or something, I don’t know, but finally, it connected and they started to move in. Unfortunately, they were then promptly pushed out of the ring for a most discouraging beginning to their competition.

Photo Credit: N Engineer
Reassembling the robot after early elimination in round one. Photo Credit: N Engineer

The judge picked up the robot to put it in the designated ‘parking spot’ and returned to continue judging. Only, in lifting the robot, she accidentally broke the robot, pulling it apart. They thus had to rebuild the robot after losing early in the first round.

The boys had a bye in round two (eight teams per round, nineteen teams, meant not all teams competed each round) so they returned to their table to fix the robot. I went with them, reminding them to save their complaining until later, after their robot was reassembled. They needed to stay focused.

Quick aside: scoring. first one out: 1 point. second one out: 2 points. etc. If the last two tie, each gets 3 points. 3-way tie: 2 points each. one winner: 4 points. At the end of the four rounds of regulation, any team with ten points made it to the playoffs.

The boys had nine points (I’d share the details of each round, but frankly, they’ve all blended together in my mind). However, there were two wildcard spots, and the boys got one of them. So the day would continue.

Their robot fell apart several times throughout the day, and each time the boys put it back together again. After fielding several complaints that the brick at the bottom gave them an unfair advantage (others complained that the brick allegedly caught on the tape and prevented others from pushing it out, an accusation which the boys deny), they were asked to remove that supporting brick. So they had to rebuild the base of the robot before the playoffs. They disagreed with the ruling (and indeed, nothing in the rules indicated they had done anything wrong), but they needed to put aside their moral outrage and meet the challenge ahead of them. They successfully petitioned for extra time  (five minutes) and used it as well as they could.

Photo Credit: N Engineer
Photo Credit: N Engineer

Often in these competitions, two robots will end up ganging up on a third (frequently, teams from the same school start by eliminating competition from other schools). As this was the only team from their school, they frequently were on the receiving end of these alliances. One strategy adopted is, if robot A is pushing robot B, then robot C will come by and push robot A to provide an extra boost.

When our heroes were robot B, they simply moved out of the way and let C eliminate A. And one time, in a later round, all three opponents ganged up on our boys, but failed to eject our robot. Indeed, strategy was as important as design, a lesson they learned well. Although, in later rounds, when their adjustments led to a complete loss of side-to-side steering, these strategies were of little use.

In the end, after a number of tense rounds (including at least one where they were pushed out with less than twenty seconds remaining, argh!), they finished the tournament with seventeen points. The winners, three teams (one of which ended up being disqualified because their robot was not 35 cm long), tied with eighteen points.

Not bad for a group of kids from a school without a Lego robotics team, using the old generation equipment (something other kids complained about, though it was clearly permitted), designing their own vehicles (while all other teams started from a kit and enhanced), being forced to rebuild their machine repeatedly (including a redesign), all without a coach.

I can only imagine what they’ll come up with after they’ve learned a bit of physics.

We went out to dinner that night to celebrate, and those of us who had watched were almost as excited about sharing the details as the kids were. They made us proud, and definitely learned quite a bit about hard work, adaptability, and teamwork.

This morning, I stopped off at the school to return the bins of Lego bricks. I got there during morning circle, and went inside the classroom just as the boys stood up to inform the class about the event. Their enthusiasm was evident, their pride and self-confidence undeniable. And the support they got from the rest of the class? Priceless.

They may not have returned home with a trophy, but they were certainly winners.

As for me? I discovered a hidden affinity for watching Legos move. And that I have an unhealthy obsession with sorting Lego bricks.

Nivi Engineer is a novelist and playwright in Cleveland, Ohio. She is a mom of three boys, and escapes the never-ending sports calendar through reading. This month, she's learning that the capital of Tajikistan is Dushanbe. And now, so will you.