Crazy for Robots

FLL State Tourn 2013Feb

As I began my job to increase the pipeline of students pursuing careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math), I had been considering bringing a robotics program to Allendale. It wasn’t my idea, though. There were a bunch of people who were telling me, “You should really think about _____.”

I had heard a lot about FIRST LEGO League (FLL) over the years, but had never seen it in action. I heard how great of a program it was, and also how much it required of students and leaders.

Last February, I traveled to Lexington (SC) with one of my sons, to watch the state tournament. We watched some of the competitions, saw some teams’ information, and got a feel for the event.

Near the end of the day, as I sat in the gym bleachers, I thought, “We can do this in Allendale.”

Getting Ramped Up

Over the next few months, I had conversations with local school leaders about how and why we should bring an FLL program to Allendale. The nail in the coffin came when Ms. Sheila Leath (Principal at Allendale Elementary School) saw some of the robotics stuff that students did at summer science camp at USC-Salkehatchie.

Once she was on board and had recruited a teacher to be the coach, we were full speed ahead. With generous grants from US FIRST (SC division) and SRS Community Reuse Organization, almost $2000 of equipment and fees were taken care of. Then, a month after school started, the school recruited 4th & 5th graders to be on the robotics team.

Of course, since I was coaching football all fall, I could not be at most of the after school team meetings. So then, when I said, “We can do this in Allendale,” I must have meant, “I’ll get everything lined up, and then turn it over to others.”

And it could not have been in better hands. Ms. Ashley Roberts (5th grade teacher at AES) was the coach, and my wife, Joanna, would be the co-coach. They did a great job getting learning about the program and directing the students in their research, teamwork, and robot building and programming.

But for all the work that the adults did, the children led the way, including writing this rap that described their innovative project idea (this is from a practice session):

Learning and Working

Since last October, sixteen students from Allendale County have been meeting at least one afternoon each week, and sometimes on Saturdays. With this year’s theme of “Nature’s Fury,” they worked on a solution to a weather-related disaster. In less than 3 months, they accomplished the following tasks:Robot Maniacs v1

  • Research tornadoes
  • Brainstorm ideas about a solution to tornado-related problems
  • Design a presentation about their solution
  • Write a rap song about their project (see above)
  • Build and program a robot
  • Build the field elements so they could practice their programs
  • Design a logo for their t-shirts

It was a lot of work, and the first month or so was consumed with them learning the basics of the program. It’s always tough for a first-year team, but we had great support and great coaches.


On Saturday, January 11, at 6:00 AM, our team (plus coaches and parents) departed from Allendale on a school bus, headed to Lexington, SC, to present their project and compete against twenty-seven other teams.

Twelve hours later, this team (named “Robot Maniacs”) returned to Allendale as champions, having earned a first place trophy for the category of Core Values. Additionally, since they placed among the top seven teams at the qualifying event, they earned a ticket to the state tournament next month!

AES Showcase Awards

In the Core Values presentation, the team explained to the judges how they demonstrated character and leadership traits, such as Gracious Professionalism and Coopertition. Gracious Professionalism is “a way of doing things that encourages high-quality work, emphasizes the value of others, and respects individuals and the community.” Coopertition is the idea of constantly learning and helping others to learn, even while competing.

Most of the team members are 4th and 5th graders at Allendale Elementary School. As such, they were younger than most teams that they competed against. In the process of emerging as champions, they came a long way, not just in the distance traveled to the competition, but also in all that they had to learn about the FIRST LEGO League program.

Next Up . . . Whole Team FLL AES

The state tournament will be on March 8**, at River Bluff High School (Lexington, SC). Here’s a list of all the teams, and a bunch of other info.

Will you consider joining us, and to support our favorite Robot Maniacs?

**Edit: The original date was February 15, but was postponed due to a winter storm. Ironic: this year’s theme is “Nature’s Fury.”


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