Grace Under Pressure: LEGO Robotics Season Recap

The NW Saturday Academy, a community-based STEM* program for city youth, concluded its fall season with a pair of regional tournament appearances.  In three years of competition, NW Saturday Academy has exposed more than 50 D.C. young people to the excitement and fun of LEGO robotics.

What is FIRST LEGO Robotics?

Tomorrow’s innovators practice imaginative thinking and teamwork. FIRST LEGO League (FLL) is a global organization whose mission is to inspire young people at a time when relevant and engaging STEM programs have the greatest impact on their future endeavors. Students in grades 3 through 8 research a real-world problem such as food safety, recycling, energy, etc., and develop a solution. They also must design, build, program a robot using LEGO MINDSTORMS®, then compete on a table-top playing field.

This year’s challenge is called “Hydro Dynamics.”  More than 250,000 students on 32,000 teams in 68 countries studied how we can improve the way people find, transport, use, or dispose of water.

The challenge was released on August 29th.  Teams in the Virginia-DC region (Virginia-DC is the largest FLL region is the world) had approximately nine weeks to select and research their topic, build a robot and present their work at a regional tournament competition.


Robotics | | Jennell Alexander, Realtor| 4646 40th St NW Washington, DC 20016 | (703) 298-3378
Assembling the table and LEGO models on the first day of class

During the dog-days of August, when most students were busy getting ready for back-to-school, our students were also meeting on a weekly basis to begin their FLL projects.  Teamwork is a major factor in FLL scoring (33%) and most of our students were meeting each other for the first time.  Over the course of the season, the coaches assigned many fun Core Values activities to help the teams practice this important skill.

Robotics | | Jennell Alexander, Realtor| 4646 40th St NW Washington, DC 20016 | (703) 298-3378
Team Hydro-Dynamic constructs a bridge out of lollipop sticks.
Robotics | | Jennell Alexander, Realtor| 4646 40th St NW Washington, DC 20016 | (703) 298-3378
Can you choreograph a team dance to Despacito in less than two minutes? That’s teamwork!

The FLL Core Values are:

  • We are a team.
  • We do the work to find solutions with guidance from our coaches and mentors.
  • We know our coaches and mentors don’t have all the answers; we learn together.
  • We honor the spirit of friendly competition.
  • What we discover is more important than what we win.
  • We share our experiences with others.
  • We display Gracious Professionalism® and Coopertition® in everything we do.
  • We have FUN!
Robotics | | Jennell Alexander, Realtor| 4646 40th St NW Washington, DC 20016 | (703) 298-3378
Searching for information on the Human-Water cycle on the internet
Robotics | | Jennell Alexander, Realtor| 4646 40th St NW Washington, DC 20016 | (703) 298-3378
Researching project ideas at the Shepherd Park Library

Snack time!
Building the robot from scratch
Putting the robots together, piece by piece.

Alexandria Regional Tournament

After a pretty bumpy season, our Division II (middle school) team came together on November 4th at the Alexandria Regional tournament, hosted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Headquarters.  As coach, I had my doubts, but Team Just Add Water saved their best for last.  For their research project, the team studied the city’s antiquated sewer system and devised a product to prevent backflow flooding during major rain events.

After six hours of competition, the team received high scores on their Research Project presentation and Robot Technical Design judging.  They did not score as well on Core Values judging, and robot performance during the Robot game held this team back.

Overall, I believe that the individuals on this team learned A LOT about working together, especially when you must work with people whom you are not necessarily friends with.  In the working world, the ability to collaborate with people that you don’t see eye-to-eye with is a vital skill.  We look forward to seeing big things from the members of this team next season as they approach their final year of FLL eligibility.

Fairfax Regional Tournament

On November 11th, our two remaining teams journeyed out to Fairfax, Virginia on a chilly day to participate in their regional tournament at the George Mason University Mason Innovation Exchange.

Team Hydro-Dynamic (elementary school) and Team Tiger (elementary school) both brought their best efforts to the field and their engaging spirit was noticed by everyone.  The judges loved both teams and awarded each of them with the Judges Award trophy for their consistent performance across all three judging areas and maintaining positive attitude throughout.  Over three rounds of robot game matches, these teams worked diligently to make improvements to their robots and programs. It was very impressive.  Although the changes didn’t work out the way the teams hoped, they should be content in knowing that they put forth the very best effort and represented themselves well.

Team Tigers studied water issues related to Ethiopia.

Team Hydro-Dynamic studied how to create inexpensive water filters to help the people of Uganda.

FIRST LEGO League is designed to inspire the dreams of our future engineers, scientists and coders. I hope that parents take every opportunity to expose their children to STEM learning.  Like other skills in life, the more you do it, the better you become. I would love to see these teams return next season to build on everything that they learned this year and advance to more sophisticated programming and engineering techniques.

Next steps

Robotics | | Jennell Alexander, Realtor| 4646 40th St NW Washington, DC 20016 | (703) 298-3378
Coach Alexander

Next season, the assistant coaches and I will certainly do some brainstorming to improve our teams’ time management processes.  This is an incredible amount of work for the students to complete in just two months, meeting only once per week.  Any wasted day or underutilized hour really comes back to bite in the robot performance.  You can have the prettiest robot in the world, but if it hasn’t been programmed and tested thoroughly, it is not going to perform satisfactorily in the Robot game.

An effort like this has a lot of moving parts and could not be done without a ton of help.  I want to thank my assistant coaches, Mr. David Carlis and Ms. Terqueasha Wooten for their dedication over the course of the season. Appreciation to Dr. Taconya Goar and Councilmember Brandon Todd for research project assistance. I would also like to thank our primary sponsor, the D.C. Area Employees group of Hitachi Consulting. Last but not least, thank you to the great folks at Northminster Presbyterian Church for everything you do for this community.

If you are interested in helping us to continue this mission and reach even more of the children in our neighborhoods, please consider making a tax-deductible donation at today!


STEM* = Science, Technology, Engineering and Math

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