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Faith In The Future Of Humanity: Restored!

, , , , , , , , , | Friendly | January 25, 2023

Several years ago, I was a referee for a First Lego League (now known as FLL Challenge) competition. This is a competition where middle-schoolers build and program Lego robots to run on a board completing various challenges for points.

This year, one of my teams had some adorable homemade outfits fitting this year’s theme. They also had a large banner that they dragged in and excitedly waved, and in general, they were full of energy and excitement.

I always encourage the kids to cheer as loud as possible when their team name is called by the announcer. That’s part of the general goal of making competitions fun and enjoyable for the kids regardless of how well they do on the table. Despite this, I usually get rather lackluster responses when team names are called. Not [Team], though. I got by far the most enthusiastic full-energy cheer I’d heard in a long time from this team.

They were at my table for their first official match. I’d watched them during their practice round and knew that their robot was decent — a bit better than the average — but was still not going to come close to the score of the best few bots.

After [Team]’s robot successfully completed its first two runs, it came back to the home base so they could swap out parts for another run. The boy starting the robot up apparently ran the wrong program. This resulted in the robot running amok over the board as it tried to run a program designed for a very different section of the board, knocking pieces out of place and losing the team points.

Then came the confusion of the kids trying to decide whether to take the bot back to home base, therefore getting a touch penalty, or leave it as it was. They ended up deciding on the penalty, but they hesitated too long making the decision, meaning they didn’t have time to complete the next run before time ran out. The net result was a rather abysmal score compared to what they should have managed.

Luckily, they would get to do three runs and only the highest score of the three counted, so they still had a chance for a better score, but having your first run go so terribly can be quite discouraging to kids.

But as I listened, rather than hearing frustration or scolding directed at the kid who messed up, I heard more cheering, proclamations that they would do better next time, and multiple teammates encouraging the child who messed up. I couldn’t help but be impressed by their relentless optimism and so resolved to keep an eye on them.

As I watched, I saw not just excitement for their own team, but compliments and cheering for the other teams. At one point, I even saw one girl from [Team] offer her help to another team when their robot wasn’t starting up right. The other team was one of the top teams, and they didn’t really need her help, but still, I was impressed by her trying to aid her greatest competition.

The final score on the tables was only one of the four areas we looked at. Separate groups of judges assessed their Robot Design, their Projects, and their Core Values. Since I usually judged, I knew all three categories well.

Core Values included inspiration (team spirit), teamwork, and “gracious professionalism”, which basically means being professional and a good sport to the other teams. I deemed [Team] to have demonstrated all three of those areas far in excess of the average team.

Not able to give up on my inner judge, I couldn’t stand the idea of [Team] not getting recognition for living up to these values on the field — and not just when they were being actively judged. Thus, I took a free moment to run down to the Core Values room and let the judges there know what I’d seen.

As it turned out, [Team] had already been ranked the top team for Core Values, even before they got my recognition. However, there were other steps for deciding what trophies to hand out beyond the ranking of the teams, and one of them was picking who got the Champion award for excelling in all four areas — the score on the table plus the three judged categories.

Usually, the Champion award tended to go to one of the teams that had a high score on the table, as they usually also had a high score in Robot Design, giving them high scores in half the areas we measured even before we considered that these teams also tended to put a bit more work into their Projects.

Still, we always stressed that all categories were weighted evenly; if anything, Core Values was usually used as the tiebreaker for otherwise even teams. In this case, they had three teams with high table and Robot Design scores, but those teams either had an abysmal Project score, in one case, or decent but not exceptional Project scores and mediocre Core Values. Competing with these three teams was [Team], with a perfect Core Values score, a good Project score, and decent, if not exceptional, Design and table scores.

The judges were split between multiple potential winners. It was apparently my confirmation that [Team]’s values continued to be demonstrated at the table that pushed them over the edge to win the Champion award.

[Team] was clearly shocked when their name was announced for Champion.

Personally, I think they earned it. I gave it my all applauding for them.

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