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FIRST and LEGO Tackle COVID-19 Challenges with Remote Programs, Resources

Oct. 19, 2020
Editor Bill Wong talks with FIRST LEGO League’s Director, Kim Wierman, about how they’re adjusting to the COVID-19 pandemic to meet the needs of their students.

FIRST is a global robotics community preparing young people for the future with programs such as FIRST LEGO League. The three-division program aims to inspire youth to experiment and grow their critical thinking, coding, and design skills through hands-on STEM learning and robotics (Fig. 1).

FIRST’s three programs include:

  • FIRST LEGO League introduces STEM to children ages 4-16 through fun, exciting hands-on learning. FIRST LEGO League’s three divisions deliver hands-on STEM learning and robotics to promote critical thinking, coding, and design skills.
  • FIRST Tech Challenge teaches students ages 12-17 to think like engineers by designing, building, and programming robots to compete in an alliance format against other teams.
  • FIRST Robotics Competition enables students ages 14-18 to design, program, and build a robot, starting with a standard kit of parts and common set of rules, and play in a themed challenge. 

I recently spoke with Kim Wierman, FIRST LEGO League Director, about how the program stays true to its mission while navigating both remote and distanced environments due to the pandemic.

COVID-19 has had a drastic impact on the education industry, from modifications to daily schedules, hybrid approaches to teaching, parents taking on greater responsibility in the process, and much more. How has COVID-19 impacted the FIRST LEGO League program?

Like most organizations and events, our FIRST LEGO League program shifted to adjust to a variety of changes brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. We’ve increased our focus on parent engagement through the programs by offering guidance to parents, while supporting teachers with delivering the program in remote or hybrid situations. School districts also have the option of using our Class Packs, which provide enough materials for an entire class versus a single competitive team (Fig. 2).

We’ve also made modifications to the full competitive program and ensured the competitions are available through our FIRST Remote Event Hub, offering the experience of in-person competitions in a virtual environment. Even though the setting of the FIRST LEGO League competitions have drastically changed, they remain crucial to students all over the world. Not only will our remote offerings continue to be a necessity for students even after the pandemic ends, but we also recognize the dire need for the social collaboration and community that students are offered through the FIRST LEGO League program. 

Historically, the FIRST LEGO League competitions have been hosted in-person. How are you converting to remote events and ensuring that students can still participate in an immersive experience?

FIRST is more than an organization—it’s a family, a movement, a culture for participants, volunteers, and supporters. More than a million people around the world engage with our programs each year, including nearly 700,000 young people who, through FIRST, find a place to belong. That’s why we’ve been working around the clock to make good on our promise to deliver a life-changing FIRST LEGO League experience, especially in these unpredictable times.

As I mentioned, the FIRST LEGO League program is now available through the Remote Event Hub, which provides a comprehensive remote experience for teams and volunteers, including remote robot performance and match scoring, award submission, evaluation and feedback, and video-conference scheduling for remote judging.

We encourage the teams to meet virtually or in person prior to participating in our events, depending on the policies outlined by their local authorities. Local Program Delivery Partners will determine whether the events will be hosted in-person or remotely. In the case of remote events, Partners will work with teams and volunteers to register with the FIRST Remote Event Hub and provide further instructions for participation.

Teams involved in FIRST LEGO League Challenge, our competition for students grades 4-8, will provide video with three, 2.5-minute pre-recorded robot rounds, time-stamped within a single day. Teams must secure a non-biased monitor (e.g., school principal, FIRST Robotics Competition team members, or other volunteer) to mark start and stop time for recording. Judging for awards, robot game play in FIRST LEGO League Challenge, and reviewing projects in FIRST LEGO League Explore, our competition for students grades 2-4, will still be conducted by our volunteers.

Ensuring students have access to STEM education and extracurriculars is an important mission, but COVID-19 has influenced perspectives on participation and concerns around safety. How are you securing student safety for FIRST LEGO League teams that are participating?

Youth protection is a critical focus for FIRST and LEGO Education. We’re working with several experts to ensure our processes and tools are secure for all individuals, especially teams. In addition, coaches and mentors will be responsible for interacting on behalf of their team with the FIRST Remote Event Hub; minors will not be creating profiles or utilizing this application.

By contacting a local Partner, parents and teachers can find out whether an event has shifted to the FIRST Remote Event Hub or if it will be held in person. In-person events may change a bit due to capacity limitations, remote elements, or other modifications to comply with local health and safety guidelines.

Our team of staff and volunteers is working hard to ensure that students are provided with the same opportunities remotely as they are in person—celebrating their accomplishments, forming lifelong friendships, and gaining the experience and support system that they need to be successful. Students need social and emotional connection to their peers and mentors now more than ever. By participating in programs such as FIRST LEGO League, they can stay engaged and even collaborate on solutions that will help their communities through the challenges that lie ahead.

How can parents, teachers, and participants learn more about changes to the in-person event experience, and ways to get involved?

For parents and teachers completely new to our program and excited to get involved, they can learn more about FIRST LEGO League by visiting https://www.firstinspires.org/robotics/fll. Our 2021 Season and Challenge are just getting started. Now is a great time to join!  

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