Getting started in FLL

So you'd like to get started in FLL?  Awesome! 

The document below is VA/DC-specific in spots, and was written in 2018.  It currently needs an update.   Suggestions welcome, to

Can you find a team?  (Option #1)

Unfortunately, there isn't a great team matching system in our area. FIRST has strong feelings about youth privacy, and they make it hard to share contact information for teams.  VA/DC FLL has some suggestions for how to contact other teams on their website.

RCROBOTS is trying to maintain contact with all existing teams in our region.  We're happy to pass your information on to teams near you.  Get in touch if you're looking for neighboring teams, please.

Right now, there are only a few FLL teams in the Roanoke Valley, and some school-based teams have restrictions on who can join.  Many families will end up with option #2...

Start a team (Option #2)

If you have an FLL-age kid and don't have an existing team with openings nearby, starting a team may be your best option.  You can coach FLL, even if you don't have any prior FLL experience.  I think the most important feature of an FLL coach is an enthusiasm for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), but you don't need any specific background in robotics.  You do need a willingness to engage with the materials available, including especially the coach's handbook and challenge document.  FLL requires the kids to do the work, but you'll want to be in a good position to help the kids figure out what they're supposed to do.

When should you start?  Use your pre-season if possible!

The FLL season officially starts on August 1.   In past years, this region's tournaments have all been in November.  That gives you about three months to get your team ready for the tournament.  If at all possible, try to use your pre-season to get ready for FLL, so that you are less pressed once the season starts.  What can you do in pre-season?  (For more ideas, visit this excellent article.)
  • Identify a second coach.  Get both coaches through FIRST's Youth Protection screening process.
  • Register the team (even if you don't have a team name or all the kids identified) and order the field set-up kit.  You'll want the field set-up kit in hand so that your team can start building it once directions are released.  Shipments can be slow.  Don't wait until August to order.
  • Sign up the FIRSTsteps curriculum.
  • Acquire an EV3 kit.  If you don't have any experience with EV3, it is a really good idea to work through the first basic rover build, and do some basic programming to make it drive around.  You don't have to become an EV3 expert, but you'll have to teach the kids to use the system, so you need some basic skills. Then take the rover back apart so the kids can build their own.
  • Recruit for the team (if possible - some school-based teams may have to wait until school starts).
  • Figure out who will build the FLL table, and where it will be stored.  You can practice with the table sitting on the floor without major issues, as long as you have the table walls.  Without walls, some missions won't be doable, so practicing with the mission mat alone is sub-optimal.
  • Figure out what you'll use for programming.  A laptop (Windows or Mac - not Chromebook) gives you access to the full programming suite.  The tablet and Chromebook app has substantially fewer features.  A rookie team without programming experience might be able to get by with a tablet/Chromebook for the first year, but sophisticated programming will require a laptop.
  • If you can get a team (mostly) assembled, consider scheduling some pre-season activities:
    • Pick a team name and create a t-shirt (if desired)
    • Learn about the topic: take a field trip, read books, watch a documentary, talk to experts, etc.  See this list of resources (outdated - need a new list for 2020 theme once released) for space-related ideas of all sorts.
    • Do team-building exercises
    • Have team members build the basic EV3 rover from directions and practice programming it, using the tutorials included with the software.  Can they get it to go exactly three feet?  Drive until it comes to a black line?  Turn 90 degrees?  If you can get your team to build some basic skills over the summer, they'll be much better equipped to do the robot game. 

Recruiting team members (and their parents)

  • A team member and parent contract is a good idea.  Make expectations clear the outset.
  • If your team is like most rookie teams, you'll have one robot being shared by up to ten kids.  Your team meeting time will need to be divided between Core Values exercises, work on the Project, work on the robot game, and creating all the presentation materials needed.  It'll be important to be very clear on this with parents and potential team members.  A kid who only wants to do creative building and isn't interested in the project might be better served by joining a local LEGO club.  (Salem and South County libraries both have one.)  Some teams let team members specialize a little bit, but all team members need to make at least some contribution in all areas.
  • Team members need to be serious about participating.  If possible, have the option of dismissing a team member (for the day or permanently) who isn't participating on the team in a positive way.

Team budget

  • Some teams fund-raise extensively.  If you're going to do this, pre-season is a great time.  Will a local business sponsor the team?  Can you do a fundraising night at a local restaurant?
  • Other teams may estimate the total cost and charge each team member's parents for their share of it.  Be clear on the refund policy, if any, for a child who quits the team mid-season.  As you're making your budget, don't forget office supplies, money for project supplies, and snacks (if desired).

Final thoughts

Even if you've coached a sport or have years in the classroom, a mentor (or three) can be a good resource for a rookie coach.  If you'd like to be connected with a mentor coach or a more experienced FLL team in the Roanoke area, please get in touch.

One of my go-to sources for online mentoring this year was the FLL Share and Learn Facebook group.

Resources and Links: