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First Lego League : From A Participant’s Perspective

Updated: Apr 15

Best Innovation Project Team, Image Credit: 

Since October, SMARTlab Skelligs Future Focus21c has been working with Olha Burdo, to co-deliver First Lego League’s (FLL) Challenge programme. Olha came to Cahersiveen in April 2022 and since then she has been working as a tutor at Colaiste na Sceilge, assisting Ukrainian students to adjust to the Irish educational system and study English as a Foreign Language. In Ukraine, Olha worked as a STEAM teacher and facilitated First Lego League teams. 

Last year, we partnered with Olha and Foróige to deliver our first experience of FLL followed by a summer camp in August 2023. This gave us a chance to explore the programme, which aligns with our INCLUDE Learning Lab - promoting 21st century sustainable mindsets, with SMARTlab Skelligs / SMARTLab IDRC, UCD and Living Iveragh, and the Muinín Catalyst Sustainable STEAM programme.

You can find out more about this work in an earlier blog, yet we thought what better way to share what the programme is than to hear from one of our participants, Sofia. We interviewed Sofia about her experience of the programme and we are delighted to share her perspective with you.

Can you start by telling us a bit about yourself (e.g. age, grade level / year at school, where you are from, your interests)?

Hello! My name is Sofia and I’m 15 years old. I come from Ukraine and moved to Caherciveen town more than 2 years ago, and since that time I have been studying in Coláiste na Sceilge school. I’m in 3rd year now. My main hobbies include reading and art.

In your own words, can you describe the First Lego League (FLL).

The FLL programme is a unique programme where you combine your own knowledge and abilities with the ones of others to create impactful and amazing things. In more depth, it is a programme in which you, together with your team, work towards the tournaments by creating/developing 4 categories of the programme performance that you then perform together at the event. Those include Innovation Project – a project of any form in which you identify a problem related to the year’s theme and create/develop a solution, Robot Game & Robot Design – where you create and design a robot that would perform themed tasks in the live robot game, and Core Values – which I find the most interesting component, as this counts for all the things you do at the event, but I’ll tell you later about it! Not only are these categories developed, but you also develop a whole lot of different skills on your way to the tournament.

Might sound complicated at first, but when you combine all of the things above with having fun and inclusivity it becomes an exciting, fulfilling, and rewarding experience :)

Can you tell us about your overall experience with the FLL programme?

I was first introduced to the FLL programme by one of the teachers (Olha) from my school who suggested I should take part in it. Before that moment, I knew nothing about it but only saw the trophy in my school of last year’s team from our school who took part in last year’s national tournament. So back then in September, I only knew a few things about the FLL programme before I joined my team – that it was something to do with engineering and Lego. I was interested in trying something new so this intrigued me , and when I joined, with each session I was realising more and more that FLL is far more than what I first thought it was.

Taking part in this learning programme gave me knowledge, experiences and space to develop my skills which I honestly don’t think school does. I have put my own abilities and talents into the programme and work for the tournament, and in return got a reward which cannot be compared to the marks you receive for completing school tests – life experiences of solving problems, thinking in a new way, improving different valuable skills and using those to create fantastic things. As my team went on its way towards the tournament, I was mostly working on our Innovative project, which was the part of the work that required my best skills and abilities. I’ve put most of my overall work into it, and as we worked in a team and combined our effort and abilities – we got a reward of the Innovative Project Trophy and many new/developed skills, knowledge, experiences and emotions.

There was another thing which I was doing – the poster for the fundraising in one of our cafes in town, where we sold many different 3D-printed cat figures with different purposes (they were cat themed as the café itself is called ‘Lazy Cat Café’ and is cat-themed haha). Actually, not only that, but we also fundraised by selling keychains with small weights in Aspire gym near the town, too. That was an opportunity for developing communication skills and seeing how the 3D printer works and what it is capable of.

Nevertheless, I can’t disagree that this programme was sometimes a challenging thing for me. But maybe that’s why it is called “FLL Challenge”. However, I’m even grateful for that, as without stepping out of the only things that you are good at and trying something new, like a work area that challenges you to use skills or knowledge you haven’t practiced or gained yet, it is hardly possible to learn new things and experience diverse interesting moments I think. And that is the thing I appreciate about taking part in the FLL programme. It challenged me to try to do exactly that and even more.

This was not what I expected at first, but I’m sure I would appreciate this experience more than any other. It was very new to me: there was something interesting, something fun, something challenging, something amazing, and everything in between, yet only positive things!!

What did you like most about the FLL programme?

There are so many things that I liked that it is hard to choose, but the one that I enjoyed most for sure would be the actual philosophy of the FLL programme and the approach it takes to the participants.

In my opinion, the Core Values of this programme are one of the very fundamental parts of it, as all of the other things such as the Innovation project or Robot design are built on them, like a multistorey apartment. These are Innovation, Impact, Inclusion, Fun, Discovery and Teamwork. The 6 of them are actually listed in the Engineering notebook which I had to monitor the journey of our team and plan our tasks, and I remember reading them out to our team in one of the early sessions. Back then they kind of resonated with me, but our tournament was the day I realised their massive importance and power, not just by how knowing them guided and helped us on our way to the tournament, but also....just how they feel when you experience them. I appreciate them for what they are and they are exactly what makes this programme special, multilateral and relevant to today's world. Thus I just like it sooo much they are a big part of this programme!!

The approach of the programme is the other thing I liked. By that I mean the learning atmosphere and tasks that it presents to participants. Because the learning is based on practical tasks, communication and free exploration of ideas, it differs a lot from ordinary school tasks that prioritize theoretical knowledge and writing. And that’s what I like, since it is actually unique and out of the ordinary way of learning that’s what makes the learning more interesting, special, engaging and kind of multi-learning, as during programme you don’t just learn about engineering, coding and similar things, but also values such as learning from each other, and this gave the unusual and valuable experience of learning.

Was there anything else you would like to share?

Another thing that I really liked about the programme is how it encouraged me to think through the learning. I noticed myself, since I am a student and do lots of subjects, that I use the same skills from school like answering questions carefully and analyzing information in a mechanical and dry way, that switching off this school-style way of thinking after the school day is hard. In this way the skills that I gained in school that are only relevant for exams can stick with me in my life too, where they are completely impractical. What I mean is these skills and thinking habits did help me with exams, but not helpful for life situations.

With the experience of the FLL programme, it was different. As we solved the problems inside of our team for the project and did challenging parts during the tournament, I realised that the way I was taught to think in school and some skills that I constantly used to succeed for exams didn't work here. So in challenges that the programme offered us here, more realistic and life skills were needed, and the programme was the place where I learned and practiced those.

For example, when we had struggles with choosing the problem for our innovation project, we needed to talk to our mentors and then among ourselves, brainstorming and analysing different ideas presented by each other and what solution we could get out of them for our project. This was a challenging part, and school rather lacks the amount of practice like that, when here I faced a lot of situations where this skill of communicating, sharing, developing and analysing ideas was needed and put in action regularly. So thanks to the situations the programme let me face, I developed those skills that I can still use almost anywhere and they do often help! This also encounters the core values that we had to use – Teamwork to collaborate, Innovation to use creativity to create new ideas and Impact to make the ideas impactful for our community. So combining those two things about the FLL – developing unique and useful skills and following its core values – created the learning atmosphere in which I could develop the best and most helpful skills and I appreciate it so much.

What were some of the most memorable moments for you?

The most memorable moments were perhaps the most meaningful ones! So a rather obvious one, but the most memorable moment for me was when my team and I were receiving the trophy for our innovation project. This was a memorable moment for each of us I suppose, as everyone around us clapped loudly, and our mentors looking at us made it all an unforgettable experience.

How has participating in the FLL programme impacted you? What skills did you learn? Is there anything you learned that will help you in the future or help you at school?

It is the fact that this programme was so unique that it had an impact on me in many different ways. The unique experiences that it gave me, like the tournament, communicating with different people, skills and knowledge are the things I know for sure I wouldn’t be able to experience in other learning places like school, and that is the thing I appreciate about participating in it the most. The things that it brought value to, like the Gracious Professionalism that brings attention to the respect of others, impacted me by helping me to remember what my own values are.

The programme had lots of emphasis on things that are sometimes forgotten or even ignored in other places, yet the things that play the biggest roles in our world and societies at this time. By that I mean the FLL core values, as well as Cooperation that favours learning over winning and other aspects of the programme – they all helped me to develop similar skills of remembering and practicing those values. And so, I’m sure this experience will be helpful for me both now and in the future.

Another thing that I learned well was time management, although through quite a challenging way...The problem was that my team didn’t regulate our time well enough so we struggled during final weeks to finish everything beforel the tournament. Although we finished in time, I realised it would have been much easier if we had a more clear plan. Nevertheless, it was totally worth it because now that skill can help me much in school work and projects.

Could you share one session or workshop from the FLL programme that you found particularly impactful?

In one of the sessions, one of our mentors brought a 3D printer in order to finish some cat figures that we later brought to the café for fundraising. This was really interesting for me, since I hadn’t seen the 3D printer work before, and then I got to see it all – how the printer looked, worked and produced objects – in close detail! It was also interesting for others and I think that this experience was useful as it raised the interest of many in technology like 3D printers!

You also had to complete a team project. can you tell us about your project, what is, was how you worked with your team and anything else you did to make your project a success

Yes, the project that we completed was an innovation project – one of the 4 parts that are evaluated and judged during the event. This project can be basically anything, however, there is one certain rule – it has to be connected to the theme of the year and complete the year’s task. This year’s theme was Masterpiece and the task for it was to “imagine and innovate new ways to create and communicate art across the globe”.

In short, the main task of the innovation project lies in identifying a specific problem and creating/developing a solution for it. So my team identified a relevant problem in our local area – the fact that it is quite hard and uncomfortable for young people to find new hobby activities. We went further and researched our chosen problem in great depth by communicating with each other and sharing our experiences with this problem, researching activities in the local area, and going to places of hobby activities to collect info. And then, we got the idea of a new solution for this issue – an interactive technology which would work as a network for all hobby activities in the local area. So using this as a tool, young people could find new activities faster, as they would be all in one place - the network of activities which we called the “Hobby Cube '' since it would be 3D and in the form of a cube. To me, the most exciting part was creating a prototype, and for that we had a designed cardboard box with a hole in it to imitate the touch screen of this device, and for the screen imitation we put a laptop with a QR code on the screen. So by scanning the code, you would be brought to the website with most of the activities available in the local area.

Our innovation project: The Hobby Cube and our fundraising campaign, Images: Sofia

For our project, our team worked in a simple way, yet it is something that I think made our work effective – after dividing the work into different parts, each of us worked on the piece they are good at. Even though each of us often tackled their own piece of work, we still communicated and shared our progress, so we exchanged feedback and ideas. This was what helped us to make the project full of different perspectives and ideas :)

I think another thing which helped us was carefully picking the problem of the project, because everything then becomes connected to it. Indeed, we took a long time picking one... But this choice was very important, as our chosen issue resonated with the year’s theme well and it was an issue which requires innovation and new solutions. What I mean by that is that we really worked on the innovative, unique, and effective solution for the problem rather than picking something simple with an easy, already similar existing solution. This helped us make our project really innovative and ambitious and our idea of creating the “Hobby Cube” would have much potential for actually solving the existing problem, I think!

And lastly, the passion and diligence for the project’s problem is something the project wouldn’t be able to succeed without. Like I said, we put lots of work into it, and that’s partially because we had an actual interest in solving and improving it. For me, even though challenging at times, solving a problem I was interested in was pretty enjoyable and I was passionate about the result of our work.

What was important for you or was valuable from participating in the regional finals?

Participating in the regional finals was definitely something special for me. Firstly, because I was able to meet the other teams that I knew were doing the same tasks as my team. Although the tasks were the same, obviously our approach and how we solved these tasks were different, so it was interesting for me to see what way the other teams did it and how it differed from my team’s work. Other teams approached us to look at our project and we visited a few too. Sharing our work and exchanging our views on it, as well as seeing other robots and how they approached the tasks was definitely a valuable experience, as it showed the significant difference of our approaches, but also how they can inspire us to improve our own approach. If I was to do the FLL programme again, I’d like to communicate with other teams more, because it truly can help a lot in my opinion!

Was there anything that surprised you about being in the finals?

Yes, the atmosphere was something that surprised me. As I haven’t been in a tournament as such before, I expected something that would be more stressful or competitive. Nevertheless, the regional final surprised me in a very positive way. Of course, like on any tournament I suppose there were those tense moments when, for example the robot game was taking place and we watched our robot completing tasks on a mat, but those were tense in a positive way of kind of watching the work of the robot, and we were able to soothe the atmosphere in such moments and make it friendly by supporting each other and other teams, as well as receiving support back from others. After we performed our project, besides the time for our robotic games and preparation for them there we chatted with other teams, our mentors, judges and amongst ourselves, so it all created an exciting day there at the tournament, making it really enjoyable and cheerful.

Finally, since doing FLL do you have any interest or ambition for the future in relation to coding, engineering, design or technology?

These subjects were a huge part of the FLL programme, and for sure I learnt something new about them. I myself didn’t work so closely with these, as I was doing the other bit of work with the Innovation Project, yet just by watching and supporting other teams and my own while they were coding and building, I learned new things about these. How diverse they are, and how many different things you can build and code in so many unique ways just with one set of Lego and one tablet. But more importantly, how powerful they are.

So as an example, we used technology in our innovation project. Our final goal was to create an interactive technology, and we also created a prototype for that in the form of a website. Lots of that work was to do with coding and technology, but what is more important I think is for what reason we used these tools and how it can help us to achieve the impact we wanted to.

As I mentioned earlier, in our Innovation project, we wanted to find a way to help young people find the activities for their hobbies easier, but that all wouldn’t be possible if not for technology, coding and engineering.

Our project, but more specifically how we used these things in our project, pushed me to the realisation that technology, coding and engineering are very powerful tools that can be used in basically anything, and have so much impact when they are combined together. Their importance to me lies in how many different ways we can use them to have an impact on almost everything around us : starting with language apps that help people communicate with one another and ending with medical equipment that saves human lives.

And since they keep developing more and more everyday, I now know that no matter what I do in the future, they are perhaps one of the best tools I might have to create impact and reach the things I want to.

Thank you!!

The First Lego League and MCCS programmes are generously supported by Clár Innovation Measure, Living Iveragh, the Science Foundation Ireland and Department of Education.

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Muinín Catalyst Sustainable STEAM uses a transdisciplinary, STEAM-based pedagogical approach. Returning to SDG 4, Target 4.7, one of the core missions of the Muinín Catalyst Sustainable STEAM programme is to ensure an arts / design and culture-led approach to learning that is transdisciplinary and transformative. Learning that supports the development of informed citizens, that are systemic, critical and creative thinkers who can apply their knowledge in agile ways that are sensitive, generative and appropriately responsive to context, in relevant and meaningful ways.

This is done through placed-based learning, which enables individuals to experience learning in local, real-life scenarios. Place-based approaches to learning grounded in local communities and contexts are relevant, engaging and inquiry-based. Students gain confidence and competence in affecting change, learning to manage risk, and develop creative, real-world solutions that are eco-socially just and restorative.

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