Making the transition from a FIRST Lego League to FIRST Tech Challenge team has been both exciting and challenging. For Most FLL teams the robot game is the area they focus on the most but for team Geared UP! the robot game was less challenging then their research projects. As a former FLL coach with over 10 years experience I eventually discovered that hands on research projects were the best way to get students excited about science and technology. Of all the things we love about FTC it is the research project that many of my students miss the most from our FLL days.
This past summer I decided to try an experiment. We introduced a pre-season project, which was designed to allow the students to explore an area of interest, which they had not had adequate time to study during the regular FTC season. This was intended to help each students develop new skills or expand on ones they had already acquired. The projects were meant to be limited in scope and duration but they all needed to follow a specific set of guidelines. While each was meant to be a solo independent project they all had to focus on one aspect of the FTC season and how this would help their team in the coming season. The projects ranged from learning how to model in SolidWorks to how to write a PID program in Java to how to develop a stronger network of team sponsors to new ways to do fund raising. Each student was required to keep an engineering notebook for the six weeks the project ran and give a 5-minute presentation to a panel of invited judges at the end . This was much like an FLL presentation where the students present for 5 minutes and the judges then have 5-minutes to evaluate their work.
The work that was begun this summer has already paid off “Big League” this season. We now have 3-4 students that are able to model our robot in SolidWorks. This critical skill will help us not only explore many more options and designs before we commit to building our bot but will also help us better document the design journey we take over the course of the season with images so we can show the judges in our notebook and on presentation boards. Our programming sub team has grown from 1 student to 3 students and all have greatly improved their ability to use Java. This season, we are going to implement the PID program one of our students wrote over the summer to improve the accuracy of the robot during the autonomous period. This is not an easy thing to do given we are using a four-wheel drive. Without having already investigated this over the summer it is doubtful we would be able to attempt this now. Our outreach team has been tracking new opportunities where we can both raise awareness for STEM programs and actively support other community groups engaged in similar activates.
In reflecting on how successful this summer experiment was I think, while still some more fine tuning is required, it has helped to give many of the students a jump start in helping their team be successful this season. If at the end of this season they have each have learned a few new skills and are excited to continue developing these next season I will consider it will worth the time and commitment each of them put into their projects. I really like the model of just in time learning and how it is sometimes the pressure of needing to learn something for a time sensitive a task or project, which is the driver of acquiring new skills and knowledge. The FTC program is a great driver for students to learn new skills and knowledge and the summer is one of the best times of the year to think.