Introducing FROGS Robotics: An FLL directory of teams, mentors, and experts.

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FROGS, the FLL Robotics Outreach Group of Salem (VA), invite you to register for our website directory. We hope to help FLL teams make connections with experts and mentors who can help them, and to help FLL teams meet each other. We'd love to include FRC and FTC teams who support or mentor FLL teams (or would like to!) in our directory. We also invite adults to register to serve as experts. FLL teams need adults willing to share a wide variety of interests and professions -- this can be as simple as a 30 minute Zoom, but it has a huge impact on the kids. Thanks! 




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How to use the Kindle Fire as an awesome WeDo tablet

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Why would you want to do this? Because Kindle Fires are incredibly cheap, for a good quality tablet backed by a major manufacturer. The only problem is that they only have the Amazon App store available, and the selection doesn’t include Lego robot apps, except for BOOST. These directions will tell you how to install the LEGO apps (and anything else) you need to make your Kindle a great asset for FLL Jr teams, basic EV3 programming, and more.

These directions were written for 2017 Kindle Fire HDs, which are 7th generation, and current generation (2018) Kindle Fire HDs. I’ve used them with HD7 and HD8, and believe them to work for HD10 too. (Please let me know if you confirm.) While I have used these directions for multiple Kindles, I can’t guarantee that they’ll work for you, and it’s possible that you’d have trouble getting help from LEGO because you’re installing their app on a device they don’t officially support. (On the other hand, a Kindle is basically an Android tablet, and so trouble-shooting will mostly be similar to any other Android tablet.)

Very old Kindles do not work with these directions. Early editions needed to be rooted and have a separate bootloader. It was a pain, required special software on the PC, and it was irreversible. These directions require no other device and you can still factory reset your kindle if something goes wrong. Ready? Let’s go!

Note to FLL Teams:
You can use these directions to install the EV3 education app on your Kindle, identical to the iOS app, but much less functional than the PC or Mac program. I believe using the app running on a Kindle to program the EV3 to be FLL legal (so long as you turn the Bluetooth off before competing), but you won’t have access to MyBlocks, or data wires, which is an absolute deal-breaker for advanced programmers. The EV3 app is fine for outreach or for first year teams who are novice programmers, but you’ll eventually want a computer.
Note to FLL Jr teams:


The WeDo app has the same functionality on Kindles as on iOS or a computer. There’s no reason to pay more.
How to get really cheap Kindle Fires:


Shop for returned Kindle Fires with “Special Offers” sold by Amazon Warehouse. These are devices that were returned to Amazon, and regardless of what it says about condition, they’re often pristine, aside from not having the original packaging. I’ve struggled to find a scratch even on “acceptable” condition Kindles. They’ll be factory reset and ready to use. If you ever get one that isn’t, Amazon has a great return policy that covers them. When Fires go on sale (several times a year), the returned ones are even cheaper. I’ve repeatedly managed $37 for HD8s on sale, and $54 is very possible even when they’re not on sale.


I don’t recommend the HD7. The screen is just too small. The HD8 is only marginally more expensive, and that extra inch makes a big difference in usability.


About “Special Offers” – Kindles with advertising on the lock screen (and only on the lock screen – no popups) are $15 cheaper than Kindles without it. However, in my experience (3 out of 3), returned Kindles don’t come with Special Offers turned on. Now at 8 out of 8 Kindles received without Special Offers turned on, be advised that about half of the Kindles I’ve bought have subsequently had Special Offers reappear after an OS update. Still a good deal. If you want Special Offers gone later, you can pay Amazon $15 to remove it.


Here’s where you find returned Kindles (or returned Legos, or anything else that might interest you):





I’m showing the 32GB HD 8 in the picture, but the 16 GBs are perfectly adequate unless you’re going to take and store a LOT of photos.


Be sure you pick one shipped from Amazon Warehouse – those are the returns. Sometimes there are also “used” Kindles listed. I’ve never seen a good deal, and I won’t want to deal with a 3rd party seller on this.


Strangely, the “Certified Refurbished” Kindles are not a good deal – you can often find a new but returned one for cheaper.


Recommended cheap options:


New links for 2019:


https://amzn.to/2CKiI9z HD8 new edition 16GB - be sure to scroll down to the purple-circled link (image above) to find the used one, and check all available colors and offer status.


https://amzn.to/2SzIuTd HD10 new edition 32GB (see above!)


Prerequisites:

I prefer to use a separate Amazon and Gmail account for the Kindles I’m going to use with students. You’ll need a Gmail and Amazon account for this process, so go ahead and make one if you don’t have one you’re willing to share it with the kids. Make the new Gmail address first, then use it to make an Amazon address. Be sure to write these passwords down!

Once you’re ready to go:

When you power up the Kindle, you’ll be prompted to register it to your Amazon account. If you haven’t already done step 2, you can always come back to do this later.

Get the Kindle onto your local network. (Use the settings button if not prompted during Kindle set-up.) NOTE: If you can’t get the Kindle onto the network (for example, because you’re me and have to jump hoops at work involving its mac address and network registration) immediately, hit “Add network” when prompted, then hit cancel. Then you’ll get a “not now” option for signing on to the network.


Go to Settings > Security > Allow apps from unknown sources. (See below.)


Open the Silk browser, and point it at this file (otherwise you’re going to have to type more URLs).


Kindle-only solution (see PC option below also, especially if setting up multiple Kindles at once): Download each of these four files on the kindle, by clicking the links in the Silk browser. Install them in order. See below for how!


Google Account Manager APK


Google Services Framework APK


Google Play Services APK


Google Play Store APKClick the link. Find the “download link marked below. Don’t fall for deceptive ads. It’s OK if it says a newer version is available. You can download this and let it update later.





Click ‘yes’ when asked if you really want to download it.





Click “Open” when the popup tells you it has finished the download, or pull down notifications from the top of the screen and click the file. If for some reason you downloaded out of order, make sure you OPEN the files in order.


Expect a bunch of warning messages. You basically have to let the Google apps own your device, if you want the Google Play store to work. This is normal, so click “INSTALL”





Repeat the steps above for each of the other three files. If everything goes well, you’ll have a screen like this one. For the first three files, after you install you can click “DONE”. For the Play store, click “OPEN”


PC/Mac option (especially good for multiple Kindles). Download the same four files above onto the PC. Connect the Kindle to the PC with the USB cable it came with. Get the Kindle to show up as a folder on the PC. (I clicked “tell Windows what to do with this device” and told it to open the folders. If it doesn’t work the first time, unplug and plug back in.) On the 2018 Fire, I also needed to pull down the notifications from the top of the Kindle screen and set up USB options to allow file transfer. Drag and drop those four files into the Internal Storage > Download folder. You may want to rename them so that it is easier to figure out which one to install first. Then browse on the Kindle to the “docs” app look in Local storage > Download. Click each file and follow steps 5c-d above.




If you’ve avoided putting the Kindle on the internet this long, now’s the time. Don’t forget that you need to register it, too. (Settings > my account > register)


When the Google Play store launches (and you can find it on the Kindle’s home screen if it didn’t launch at the end of step 5), you’ll need to log in with your Gmail account. Get logged in, answering “NO THANKS” when it asks for payment information. You don’t want the kids buying apps.


*note - I often have to log in twice on first deployment. I’m not sure why that is, but it seems to work fine on the second attempt, so don’t panic, just login again.





Use the ‘search’ button to find the apps you want. The WeDo app is the top link. You can also grab the EV3 education app. Click the app from the list, then click Install on the app-specific screen. Note that both should show “LEGO Education” as the publisher.








Google play will download and then install the app. Don’t be surprised if this is a little slow, since it may also be trying to update the four apks you installed, and it’s a beefy download. You can monitor progress within the Play store. Click the menu button at the top left of the screen, then choose “My apps & games”.





If it seems to hang and you’re definitely still on wireless, try going into the “Google Settings” app (also on the home screen) and confirm that you’re still logged in. Log in if not, then launch the Play store again.

While you’re waiting for the download, make sure Bluetooth is turned on, in Settings > Wireless.

Other apps you might want from the Play store (none required):

Chrome (because turning off advertisements on the starter screen in Silk does not seem to be possible) – but note that any browser access means you’re giving them access to a lot of internet. Choose carefully.

Google Drive, Docs, Sheets, etc <- my go-to solution for pushing lots of files out to lots of Kindles at once.

BOOST app (can also be had from the Amazon app store, but sometimes the Play store has a newer version)

Clean-up and security:

The suggestions below make the environment less cluttered which will reduce confusion for the little kids, and they make how to install games less obvious to the older kids, but you’ll still need to supervise. If you really need 100% control of what the kids can access, none of the suggestions below will be perfect, and you may want something other than a cheap kindle running software it isn’t really supposed to run.


Once you’ve installed everything you want, you probably have a big cluttered mess on the desktop, and most of it isn’t removable. If you touch and hold on an app you don’t want on the homescreen and drag it onto another app you don’t want on the homescreen, you’ll make a folder containing the apps. Drag additional unwanted apps there, too. This doesn’t prevent the kids from finding and running them, but at least it removes the clutter.


You can remove most of the clutter and keep the kids from getting into it by turning on parental controls. Go to Settings (which you might have put in that folder) and scroll down for Parental Controls. Set a password. The following settings made the most sense for my team, but you may have different needs. Turn off abilities you don’t want the kids to have, being sure to click into “Amazon Content and Apps”. Note that blocking “Apps and Games” will prevent you from running the WeDo or EV3 apps, so don’t do that, but you can make a number of unwanted apps disappear here.





You can turn on parental controls on the Google Play store, but unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a way to entirely block the kids from opening the Play store and looking for free E-rated apps.

If you really need the Play store blocked, you might remove the Play store. Unfortunately, doing this removes automatic updates of the apps you installed this way. Do you know a better way? Please tell me! To remove an app, click and hold on it for a couple seconds, then release. An “uninstall” option will appear at the top of the screen. (Reinstalling will be much simpler if you leave the rest of the Google APKs installed.)

Note: Although it looks tempting, you can’t run a child profile in FreeTime with apps from the Play store without additional (clunky-looking IMO) workarounds. I’m linking some discussion and directions below, but be warned that I have /not/ tested these and do not know if they continue to work in 2019:


https://www.reddit.com/r/kindlefire/comments/6iuysn/how_to_add_google_play_apps_to_child_profile/


https://www.howtogeek.com/321474/how-to-get-sideloaded-apps-to-show-up-in-freetime-profiles-on-fire-tablets/

That’s all I’ve got! I hope you’ve found this helpful. Please get in touch if you have any questions or suggestions for this document! Happy LEGO-ing!
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FLL workshops

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New and experienced teams and coaches are invited to join us at Roanoke College!


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Getting started with FLL

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Getting started with FLL (Copenhaver workshop materials) 

What you need:
  • 2-10 kids ~9 years old to 14 (not yet 15 on January 1 2019 for 2019 season), 2 coaches
  • A robot kit! EV3 (or NXT) or a Spike Prime (released in August – adopt at own risk!) per team. (Two is better if teams are large, but don’t let having only one robot stop you!)
  • A way to program the robot. EV3: windows/mac laptop is ideal, tablets/Chromebooks OK for rookie teams. Older laptops are totally OK for EV3!   Bluetooth is nice.  Spike: Laptop or tablet. 
  • FLL table (4’x8’) with walls


Costs (per team per year):
  • Registration: $330 (national – includes mission models and mat) + $150 (VA/DC state – includes qualifier tournament).
    • NOTE: Season passes don’t allow teams to go to a tournament. Not a good option for many schools.
  • $200 for state championship (if team qualifies), plus hotel & travel (JMU, Sat AM-Sun PM)
  • T-shirts/hats if wanted
  • Project supplies, office supplies, etc: $50-200.  (Highly variable)
Start-up costs (per team, once)
  • FLL table ($100+) – multiple teams can share
  • Robot ($400ish, less if used)
    • Buy the EV3 education version or Spike directly from LEGO Education or through FIRST.
    • SPIKE users will probably want the expansion set.
    • EV3 users may want the EV3 expansion set, or may want to add another color sensor. It’s OK to skip these if budget is tight.
    • The “home” EV3 set (31313) is OK to use, but lacks the battery pack, gyro sensor (popular with advanced teams), and ultrasonic sensor found in the Education version. The home set’s IR sensor and remote cannot be used in FLL. 
  • Computer (totally OK to use one already in your classroom) or tablet (suboptimal) – varies
Season:
  • Challenge released August 1 (register in May-July if possible)
  • (VA-specific) Tournaments one Saturday in November
  • (VA-specific) State tournament: first weekend in December
  • (VA-specific) No spring season – use your robot(s) for other learning!
How to fund it:
Curricula and lessons for FLL:
Non-FLL EV3 robotics curricula and lessons:
Other advice:
  • The Challenge Document will be released August 1. Read it.  Yes, all 30+ pages.  Then read it again, and get the kids to read it.  If you don’t understand something, ask!  Rules are enforced.
  • Use the rubrics, and encourage your team members to use them too!
  • Understand what the qualifier day is going to be like and share it with your team. Do a dress rehearsal day for judging and robot game.
  • Many teams run better if they’ve had a snack first.
  • At its best, project-based learning can mean that the kids learn what they’re most excited about, and you want to have some fun built in to every day, for sure. BUT there’s a list of deliverables they’ll be expected to have at the tournament.  Coaches can help kids prioritize.  It isn’t always easy.
  • Large teams can’t all work on the same thing at once. Plan together the work together, then split up into pairs/threes to build/program/research/brainstorm/write/assemble posters/etc.
  • Kids can specialize a little bit, but everyone must participate in all parts. Learning happens in all parts of FLL – don’t be afraid to require all team members to work on all parts, including the parts they’re not as confident in!
  • Have fun! FLL is a ton of fun, but it is hard
Where to get help:
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Getting started with FLL Jr

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Getting started with FLL Jr (Copenhaver workshop materials, June 2019)

By Cathy Sarisky

What you need:
2-6 kids (1st-4th grade), 2 coaches
A WeDo 2.0 robot set (or original WeDo 1.0) per team.
A way to program the WeDo 2.0. A tablet with Bluetooth (Android or iOS) works, as does a computer with Bluetooth.




Costs (per team per year):
Registration: $100 (national) + $50 (VA/DC state – for an Expo).
Class packs or School packs can be a good value if you’re running lots of teams and will host your own Expo/Showcase.
T-shirts/hats if wanted (varies)
Office supplies, etc: $10-50


Start-up costs (per team, once)
WeDo 2.0: $190 (buy through FIRST or through LEGO Education)
Two rechargeable AA batteries ($5) and a good charger (~$30). Buy pre-charged rechargeable 2000mAh batteries and you probably won’t need to recharge all season. Or buy the battery pack and charging cord ($90).
Extra Legos (variable, OK to go without).
15’x15’ baseplate ($15 each) or two to help keep models together. (Optional)
Tablet or computer. I’m a big fan of 8” Kindle Fire tablets (~$60 on Amazon Warehouse), but if you have iPads or something already, great!


Season:
Challenge released August 1 (register in May-July if possible)
You choose the schedule! Many teams meet weekly.
Expos throughout the year, mostly in Spring.


Curriculum for FLL Jr:
Full curriculum – includes a coach’s handbook and student workbooks for twelve 1-1.5 hour meetings, ships to registered teams in early August.
The workbooks are a bit light on content. Many sessions could be improved by adding a book or video to the session (FIRST usually provides some recommendations) or by assigning some research as homework. You have the flexibility to adapt the material as best suits your team(s).
Standards alignment: https://www.firstinspires.org/resource-library/flljr/standard-alignment-map


Other WeDo curricula and lessons (not specifically for FLL Jr):
Built into the WeDo 2.0 app (access on the tablet)!
https://education.lego.com/en-us/downloads/wedo-2/curriculum
https://le-www-live-s.legocdn.com/wedo/pdfs/scienceteachersguide/scienceteachersguide-en-us-v1.pdf (includes standards alignment and overview of built-in lessons)


How to fund it:
FIRST DonorsChoose (restricted to teachers) - https://help.donorschoose.org/hc/en-us/articles/115001804827-Selective-Funding-for-FIRST-team-projects
Ask local sponsors: businesses, community groups, etc
FIRST grants (diversity & equity): https://www.firstinspires.org/about/diversityinclusion (NOI likely to be due in early November)
Ask parents/school/PTA to contribute
Fundraisers
Check in with your local FRC/FTC team (if any) – they may have funds to sponsor!
Blacksburg/Roanoke: http://www.tuxedopandas.org/startateam (Note: costs outdated but kit availability confirmed for 2019.)
More information from Lego Education: https://education.lego.com/en-us/grants-and-funding


Other advice:
FLL Jr is non-competitive. Follow the curriculum and the guidelines as much as suits you, but if your team wants to deviate from the guidelines, no big deal. If they’re excited about learning something, run with it! [This is very different from FIRST LEGO League.]
Expos are non-competitive. Reviewers (like judges, but not judging) will visit each team and ask questions. Awesome reviewers (and they’re almost always awesome) will ask the kids about their learning and have a positive conversation about whatever the team has done, regardless of whether it perfectly follows the guidelines.
Large teams can’t all work on the same thing at once. Plan together the work together, then split up into pairs/threes to build/program/research/brainstorm/write/draw/assemble posters/etc.
Have fun!


Where to get help:
FLL Jr Share and Learn (on Facebook)
No teams nearby? Need a mentor? Find one here!
FIRST training: https://www.firstinspires.org/community/educators
Online WeDo course: https://elearning.legoeducation.com/wedo-2-0
Need local help? Ask me! Cathy Sarisky: sarisky@roanoke.edu / 540-375-2438
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Some thoughts from a second-year FLL coach

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Here are some second-year coach (this year with three veterans and four rookies) thoughts/observations/reflections from our tournament. They might be helpful for rookie coaches (since I know many of you have tournaments still coming up). And I'm still processing yesterday.
1. My kids needed to educate the local refs on scoring a couple times. (They use some "over the target" language to park a robot holding mission models where those models need to be at the end of the game.) We practiced this before going, and they got it scored each time, although it had to run up to the head ref once. They also had a great interaction with one of the tournament organizers about a spot where they were concerned their practice round might have been incorrectly scored in their favor. Making sure that your kids know the rules sets them up for this sort of success. We modeled "let's look up what the rules actually say" repeatedly. We also practiced how to ask refs for things - can you verify that space travel is rolling smoothly? Can you straighten the mat? [We also talked about NOT fussing about things that didn't matter. If you aren't doing the mission, don't bug the table setters about it.] All with lots of emphasis on gracious professionalism - at a qualifier, many of the table setters and refs are new to this season's models and rules and all are doing their best.
2. It was clear by the end of the first scored robot game run that one of their missions (that they broke our house-rule to edit three days ago) needed more adjustment. I was able to snag table time for after their second run (it was a /tight/ schedule!), and they successfully tweaked that run. I do NOT like making code changes at the tournament. My goal is to ignore the practice tables and never take my laptop out of the bag all day, but it was the last turn in a standalone mission, so it was a pretty safe change. [One of my rookies wanted to also change a turn in the middle of a complex three-mission run. I pulled out the coach veto on that one.]
2.5 Our house rule that code needs to stop changing about a week before the tournament lets us practice timed table runs and talk strategy. Should you grab (interrupt) the robot? When? How long does the next mission take? Can you run that mission twice (if the first time fails) or not, based on time on the clock? My kids made several very strategic choices on the fly yesterday: three points of interruption penalty to get the robot launched CORRECTLY to do 60 points is always worth it, but grabbing the robot with ten seconds left when your remaining mission scores its first points at 20 seconds is NOT.
3. Our practice in the week before tournament includes coming into judging rooms - who is carrying what, and where does everyone stand? Who holds the door for the cart? Who will give the team info sheet to the judges? We practice in all sorts of bad spaces (too small! too narrow! huge!), and we repeatedly send kids out of the room, move the judging table to a different part of the room, and call them back in. They knew who needed to be in which order, so there was no jostling through the door. They got really good at walking in and ending up perfect position, but they sure didn't start there. Getting the kids in the right spot compensates for a kid with a softer voice, and getting the posters right close to the judges makes it much likelier that the judges will be able to see what's on the poster.
4. At our qualifier, it was ten minutes in the room and (I think?) 5 or 10 minutes between teams. Judges weren't going to have time to look at anything left behind, and we were told during the coach's meeting not to bother leaving anything. We worked a lot on "if you don't tell it to the judges, they can't score you on it correctly", but we still had a few spots where they didn't cover a rubric sub-area, and I can see it on the rubric sheets we got back. I should have had them rubric score themselves again last week, but we got busy and didn't quite get there. Judges asked about one area they didn't cover well in the planned project presentation (and then gave them a four when it was clear they'd totally hit it and didn't talk about it), but the CV judges left the rubric blank on coopertition, discovery, and integration when the team didn't cover it.
5. In robot design, we enlarged the (heavily commented) code they wanted to talk about and put it on posters, along with lots of pictures of the design process. That worked much better than normal-sized code printouts.
6. We like posters, apparently. We brought six posters to robot design judging (with a planned 3.5 minute presentation that wasn't quite scripted, but had every kid with a specific topic to cover). We brought three posters and a prototype on a wheeled cart into project. We make smaller posters (the smallest size in the store) on rigid foamboard, and we stick each one right in front of the judges as we're talking about it, so that they can actually see it. Much easier to pack and maneuver than one big trifold. I suspect it also prompts the judges for which kid to ask which question (if your kids are holding posters they're ready to discuss).
7. I've found it important to let my kids know what's going on in CV judging, and that they can be asked to do more or less anything. We talked explicitly about how you can build the tallest tower and get horrible scores if one kid shoves everyone out of the way takes over the process, but that you can also get horrible scores by sitting in a circle singing a team chant and ignoring the challenge. [They thought both extremes were funny, but its a tricky line to thread for some very competitive kids.] My oldest (and loudest) kid had a specific script he practiced - ask who has an idea and shut up, check that everyone's ideas have been heard, confirm that the team agrees on what they're doing, etc.
8. Things we did at tournament: Sing the team chant a lot, but NOT near the judging rooms. Insist (roadtrip rules!) that everyone pee when you go past the bathrooms. Go outside and run around (even if for only 15 minutes) if you have a break big enough. If your pit area is too small, find a spot to be basecamp, and park the stuff you're not using (and parents and sibs who aren't watching the robot game) there. Take a break in the pits when you can (bring games, madlibs, playdoh, etc). But don't be committed to having to go back to base between events. It doesn't make sense to rush back to pits for five minutes if you could regroup in a hallway and then walk calmly to the next event. [Having a non-coaching parent who is responsible for knowing where all the rooms are and walking the kids (and coaches) there is a good thing.]
8.5 My kids' goal is always to cheer for other teams, and it's hugely fun if you can get another team to play along, but my kids don't remember to do it if not prompted. (The five minutes in the queuing box before robot game is stressful, go figure!) We do "Let's go _otherteam_ let's go!" at the teams around us in the queue, and often they look flummoxed, figure it out, and start cheering back at us.
9. I confiscate fidget items, buttons, stray hats, and everything else except needed props before sending my kids into an event. There's one kid who needs to empty her pockets before judging. Every single time. I have a purse full of plastic rubber ducks, pins, and candy that I'll need to return to the kids tomorrow. Yesterday, they got past me with a new sticker stuck to the back of a nametag lanyard that turned out to be irresistible for pulling on and off during judging.
10. Help the kids prioritize and adapt. It is very important to show up at robot game with all the robot parts. It is very important to show up at judging with all your presentation materials (and all team members!). If you have to run robot game without your rhino hat or while still dressed in an astronaut suit (because we had no break between project and one robot game run), you'll live.
11. My kids DROPPED the robot yesterday. Luckily, our robot lives in a plastic bin with a latching lid at all times when not in active use, so nothing happened. I was surprised to see so many robots without boxes in the queuing area and in the hallways.

Cathy Sarisky is a second-year FLL coach, biochemist, robot enthusiast, and parent of two.
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An FLL JR FAQ

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So you're thinking about starting an FLL Jr team.  Here are some FAQs and answers.  If you have other questions, comments, or corrections, please get in touch!  --Cathy Sarisky

  1. How is FLL Jr different from FLL?
    (See also:  Choosing between FLL and FLL Jr.)  
    Competition vs Expo:  One of the big differences between FLL and FLL Jr that can't be over-emphasized is that FLL is competitive, and Jr is not.  In FLL Jr, if the kids show up, they'll get celebrated. Everyone gets a certificate and/or medal, and everyone's a winner. If the kids follow the directions and do everything they're supposed to do, great. If they don't, still great. Reviewers will celebrate whatever they did. Last year, one of my JR teams really wanted to do a project, like their older sibs in FLL. So they did. There wasn't anything like that anywhere in the directions, but the reviewers had a nice conversation with them about it, and it was all good. JR coaches can take whatever excites the kids and run with it, and it'll be all good. FLL coaches should absolutely try to get the kids working on stuff they're excited about, but there are a lot of deliverables, and they matter.
  2. What do we buy?
    • You need to register on FirstInspires, just like you would for an FLL team.  The $99 registration fee (US numbers) includes the "Inspires" set (a model all teams build, plus lots of extra parts), coach's manual, workbooks for the kids, etc.
    • You need a WeDo 2.0 (or original WeDo 1, but the rest of the directions assume a WeDo 2).  The cheapest way in the US is to register a team and then buy it through the "Order product" link on the FirstInspires dashboard.  You'll save $10 compared to buying from LEGO Education.  The WeDo 2.0 kit is $179.95 (plus shipping) through FirstInspires.  They also offer a bundle with the rechargeable battery pack and charger (for 269.95), but the WeDo 2.0 can go quite a while (sometimes all season!) with two AA batteries, so it may not make sense to buy the battery pack kit  The battery pack is certainly more convenient, but $90 per kit for convenience?  I didn't buy it.
    • You need a tablet (or laptop) capable of connecting to the WeDo 2.0.  Most iPads work.  So do many Android tablets, or Kindle Fires with a little work.  Here's the official compatibility list.  And here's a longer unofficial list of Android tablets thanks to the Wedo 2.0 Community on Facebook.
    • Your regional organization will also collect a registration fee for the Expo.  In my region (VA/DC), that's $50 per team and covers a medal for each team member and a certificate for each team.
  3. What curriculum/planning support is there?
    The Inspire set will ship with a full curriculum for FLL Jr, with 12 sessions.  The sessions are nominally an hour long, but you could easily rearrange to accommodate longer meetings (if your kids can handle them - mine can't) or more meetings.  The WeDo 2.0 app also has a whole curriculum built in (and you can find the teacher's guide online).
  4. How long should we meet?  How many times?
    You could very easily run a year of FLL Jr if you did the WeDo lessons, took some field trips or had some visitors, read some books as a group, and so on. Or you could do a fast twelve weeks, or six weeks if you met twice a week.  Since the deliverables are minimal, you can do whatever fits your schedule.  I wouldn't try to do it in less than twelve hour-long sessions.  If you're going to extend the season, doing the WeDo projects early (before parts of your WeDo are built into the team model) likely makes the most sense.
  5. What's in the season pass?
    The season passes are for organizations that will run a lot of teams and will do their own "in house" Expo(s).  The "small" season pass includes:
    • Instructions to host your own Expo.  (Teams can't register for the official Expos, although you'll want to confirm that with your regional organization.)
    • Challenge Season Kit included (18 Inspire Sets, 24 Team Meeting Guides, 2 Program Administrator Guides, 144 Engineering Notebooks).  NOTE: you need an inspire set per team per Expo.  You need an engineering notebook per team member.
    • Rights to use products to run multiple sessions

To learn more about starting teams, visit our Team Basics section.

See also the presentation I gave to teachers on teaching with WeDo / FLL Jr for more information and helpful links.
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So you'd like to buy a robot?

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If you'd like to have a robot at home, and you'd like that robot to be somewhere within the LEGO product universe, what should you buy?  You have three (in-production) options:  BOOST, WeDo 2.0, and EV3.

Of course, if you're joining or starting a FIRST team, what robot you use will be already determined for you by the type of team.  FLL uses EV3 (or NXT), while FLL Jr uses WeDo (1.0 or 2.0).  Currently, BOOST is not legal for any FIRST competition.

EV3 

EV3 is the "big kid" product, nominally for ages 10+.  It comes ready to program with the EV3-g graphical programming language, which includes data-logging, advanced math, and other features that can be used to do some serious programming.  (Blocks can be seen here, but many blocks have multiple modes.)
Education set.

EV3 is technic-based.  There are no studs here, just pins and axles and liftarms.  This can be a new experience for LEGO builders who've only done System (studs and bricks) builds.

The parts included in the kit are enough to build a basic robot driving base with multiple sensors, with a motor leftover for doing something interesting, such as picking up an object.  If you want a fourth motor, you can buy one separately.

There are two different EV3 releases available:  31313 is the Home version and has an IR sensor and remote (which are not allowed for FLL).  45544 is the Education version and includes an ultrasonic sensor and gyro sensor.  The Education version also includes a rechargeable battery.  Both have three motors (two large, one medium).  Both use identical intelligent bricks.  Both can be programmed either the home or education version of the software (both of which are free).   There is also an expansion set, which has more Technic parts and directions for additional builds when combined with the education set.  It contains no motors or other electronics, and whether it is a good value depends on whether you happen to want the parts it contains.

If you think there's a chance your EV3 will become an FLL robot, or you want the battery or the gyro sensor, it makes sense to buy the Education version, which you'll find on the LEGO Education website, but not in regular Shop@Home.  There's an excellent comparison of these EV3 options at RobotSquare.  There's a pretty big trade in EV3 sets (mostly home, but some education) on eBay and other sites.  Be warned that sellers may not have bothered to do an inventory of what parts are present, so while there are deals to be had, there are also disappointments.
Home set

The EV3 can be programmed with a computer (PC or Mac) over Bluetooth or by plugging in a USB cable.  You can write programs without being connected to the intelligent brick, and then transfer them later.  The software also includes tutorials (with a different selection for Home vs Education software).

The EV3 can also be programmed with the tablet app (which runs on iOS and Android tablets, but not phones) or a Chromebook, but the tablet/Chromebook app is significantly limited compared to the computer.  The app will only suffice for novice programming.

Update, January 2020:  The original EV3 software (sometimes called EV3-g) no longer runs on recent (Catalina) versions of MacOS.  A new scratch-based programming language has been released for Macs, and a version for tablets/Chromebooks/Windows is promised for later in 2020.

When you're tired of dragging data wires around in EV3-g, the brick can be easily booted into Linux with a microSD card with an ev3dev image, allowing you to program it in any number of textual programming languages.  (This is not legal for FLL, however.)  Booting Linux is fairly straightforward, and since you load the operating system from the SD card, you can go right back to your brick being a vanilla EV3 by just removing the card.  Update 2019:  There's now a Python version for EV3 released by Lego Education, in addition to ev3dev.

What'll it cost?  List prices (US) are $349 for Home and $412 for Education.  The expansion set is $105 directly from LEGO Education.  You can find the Home set at MSRP (rarely below) from a variety of etailers, including Amazon (affiliate link).  Education sets are often offered for sale on marketplace sites at above MSRP, sometimes by a substantial margin.  Buy direct from Lego Education instead, but expect to pay shipping (about $8 per set).  Used sets appear frequently on eBay, with complete-ish Home sets running about $200-250 and education sets running $300 and up.

There is a modest discount available to registered FLL teams, so if you're affiliated with a team, it'll make sense to buy through the team if possible.  (If you're starting a new FLL team, register the team before buying from LEGO Education, if possible.  Registration opens in May.)

For more parts, eBay or Bricklink are good options.

WeDo 2.0

The WeDo 2.0 is the current Lego Education product for elementary school kids.  The projects are simple, easily built in a class period.  The bricks are a mix of Technic and System.

The WeDo 2.0 is controlled from a tablet (iOS or Android) or computer over Bluetooth.  The program runs on the tablet or computer, not on the WeDo2.  Unlike the EV3, where the programs are copied to the intelligent brick, where they stay forever, the WeDo intelligent brick does not store programs or do anything independent of the tablet/computer.  This isn't a problem really, just a difference to be aware of.

NOTE: LEGO doesn't officially support the WeDo app on Kindle, and you won't find the app in the Kindle store.  However, if you install the Google Play store per these directions, the Android app works just fine.  (As of 4/2018, confirmed for 2017 HD7 and HD8 Kindle Fires. As of 1/20, also good with 2019 HD8 Fires.)

The WeDo's biggest limitation is the number of ports.  It has two.  That means you can have two motors (if you buy an extra one separate from the basic kit) or a motor and a sensor, or two sensors.  Since a basic robot driving base requires two motors, a basic driving base has no ports leftover for a sensor.  This is a significant limitation.

I love the basic, small builds included in the WeDo directions, and I love the projects included in the software.  My five year old can sit down and build one of these in one sitting.  But I would love the WeDo a lot more if my kids could build a robot that could easily drive around the house avoiding obstacles.

The WeDo app includes both directed building with exact directions and projects that challenge kids to improve upon an existing build or to design and build something of their own.  It's great stuff.

The native programming language is a graphical programming language, not too different from EV3-g.  It is possible to do somewhat sophisticated programming with it, but it the entry-level programming is simpler than EV3-g.  You can see the blocks available at LEGO's website.

What'll it cost?  List price (US) is $189.  WeDo 2.0 is new enough that there aren't many used sets out there yet, and direct from Lego Education seems to be the only (reasonable) option.  (Sets on Amazon are marked up above MSRP.)

There is a modest discount available to registered FLL Jr teams, so if you're affiliated with a team, it'll make sense to buy through the team if possible.  (If you're starting a new FLL Jr team, register the team before buying from LEGO Education, if possible.)

BOOST 

BOOST is the second-newest member of the LEGO robot family.  This is a consumer-targeted set, with more play features than WeDo.  Unlike WeDo 2.0, it can be bought from any number of retailers, and sometimes can be found on sale.  The listed age range is 7-12, but older kids and adults may also enjoy it.

Like WeDo 2.0, BOOST communicates with a dedicated tablet or Windows 10 laptop (with compatible Bluetooth), and does not run independently.  The list of user-confirmed compatible devices is longer than LEGO's official list:  Android (including Kindles), iOS.

BOOST is predominantly System (brick) based, with a few technic parts in the mix.  Unlike WeDo 2.0, the builds are extensive, and will be challenging for a novice LEGO builder.  There's some scaffolding and stop and play built in, which helps somewhat.  There are a lot more parts in the BOOST box than in a WeDo 2.0 box, although WeDo 2.0 gives you a nice plastic bin to sort them in, while BOOST comes in a cardboard box.

While the WeDo 2.0 comes with one motor, the BOOST has three.  Two separately-controllable motors are present in the "move hub", which makes programming a driving base robot very easy, and indeed a driving base is the first introductory build.  There's also another motor which can be connected to one of two available ports.  There is significantly more functionality here than with the WeDo.

Like EV3 and WeDo, BOOST uses a graphical coding language.  The coding blocks available are extensive, although the scripted early builds only unlock a few blocks at a time, so kids aren't overwhelmed.  Like WeDo, you can't play around with the programming palette unless the tablet is paired with the BOOST, which can occasionally be a nuisance.

The BOOST is arguably a younger kid's toy, but there's enough going on with the programming that older kids and adults may also enjoy playing with it.  As more builders get it, we're likely to enjoy more user-released directions, such as these from JK Brickworks.

The LEGO BOOST Idea Book is a good addition to the app, and focuses more teaching how to build fundamental mechanisms rather than large robots to play with.

What'll it cost?  List price is $159, but sales happen.  You can buy from any major etailer (such as Amazon - affiliate link) or direct from Lego Shop@Home.

What should you buy?

For younger kids, it's a real toss-up.  WeDo builds are so much simpler that they may be the best option for younger builders with short attention spans.  But if you want a robot cruising around the floor and responding to its environment, you'll need a BOOST.  The BOOST is the lowest entry cost, and much better for building robots that drive, but the builds included are complex, and there's much more focus on playing with the robot, not learning with the robot.  Both are fun and educational, but the emphasis is different.  

I really wish LEGO offered small projects like the ones in the WeDo, but with a move hub like the BOOST.  That I'd buy and recommend in a heartbeat.

For older kids (about 10+), either EV3 or BOOST offers a lot of value.  If you aren't sure if your child will be excited about robotics, starting with a BOOST is a reasonable option, and offers a great deal of play value.


For another take on the WeDo vs Boost question, visit Robocamp.
And here is Lego's own comparison of Boost vs Wedo

New for 2020:  SPIKE Prime

SPIKE Prime is the newest robot addition.  It should be FLL-legal for 2020-2021 (based on it being intended to be legal for 2019-2020 before a production delay meant it didn't release on time).  The programming language is scratch-based, similar to the new EV3 Classroom, but at this writing (January 2020) it doesn't appear that the SPIKE app can control the EV3 or the EV3 app can control the SPIKE, despite language similarities.
LEGO has said that SPIKE Prime doesn't replace the EV3, and it appears to sit in the gap between WeDo and EV3, with a slightly easier building system than the EV3, but much more functionality than the WeDo.

Bonus content: NXT (not in production)

The predecessor to EV3 was NXT.  If you come upon one at a garage sale at a good price (or shake down a college-aged kid for the one in his/her closet), you can program it with the EV3 programming software, or the original NXT-g programming software.  The NXT has some limitations compared to EV3 (not as easy to use a different programming language, no Bluetooth support in EV3-g, one less motor port), but if you happen on one cheap, grab it!  The motors and most sensors will work on an EV3, and useful Technic parts are useful Technic parts, regardless of color.

Caution:  The NXTs can have issues with the screen malfunctioning, and many have come out of closets with intelligent bricks destroyed by battery acid.  Inspect carefully.  While LEGO sometimes does replace malfunctioning NXT bricks (STILL!), don't spend so much that you'll be unhappy if your intelligent brick fails.

In 2019-2020, NXTs were still legal for FLL.  A cheap NXT could be a good secondary robot, but I hesitate to recommend it as a primary robot, due to the possibility of screen failure mid-competition.
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Getting started in FLL

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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 sarisky@roanoke.edu.

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:


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Links for teams

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Below are some links that those new to FIRST programs and/or robots may find helpful. Suggestions for more? Please let us know!

FRC:


FTC:

FLL:

FLL Jr:

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Choosing between FLL and FLL Jr

A quick look at eligibility requirements for FLL and FLL Jr may leave you scratching your head.  So what do you do with a 9 year old, if either program is an option?  Let’s examine the two programs, as it may help with the decision.

Before we dive into the data, let's note that both programs have a different challenge topic (theme) each year.  As a result, both programs are very repeatable.  The kids can use programming and project management skills from one year to jump-start the next year, but they’ll be solving all new problems and learning about a new STEM topic each year.

We try to keep this document up to date, but pricing and schedule information is mostly from the 2017-2018 season, as 2018-2019 season information isn't yet available. Some information is Virginia- or Roanoke-centric.
FLL JrFLL
US age requirements: Ages 6-9, on Jan 1 of challenge release year. (Kids who don't turn 10 until after Jan 1, 2018 can do 2018-2019 Mission Moon.). Lower age limit is not enforced. “Ages 9-14”, on Jan 1 of challenge release year. (Kids who don't turn 15 until after Jan 1, 2018 can do 2018-2019 Into Orbit.)  Lower age limit is not enforced in some regions.
Size of team 2-6 2-10
Equipment needed (reusable each year, per team) WeDo 2.0 ($185), a laptop or tablet to run it with (you probably have something, or $35-50 for a Kindle Fire, if you install the Play store), an inspire set (included in registration fee). EV3 set ($350-500) or SPIKE Prime, a laptop/computer/tablet (strong preference for laptop), field setup kit ($75), 4x8ft table ($100-200 to build)
Registration (per team) $99 (includes inspire set) + $35 for an Expo (region-specific)$225 + $150 to VA/DC (includes qualifying tournament) + $150 (2017 price) if you progress to the state tournament.  
Format Non-competitive. Do what you do.  Rules are vague in spots, and you won’t be judged anyway. Competitive. Judging and awards.  Core values say that “what we learn is more important than what we win” but competition is clear at tournaments.  Important to follow the 30+ page rule book carefully.
Timing: Challenge release is August 1, Expos are mostly in February-April. 1-2 hours per week for 12 weeks is sufficient, but you could expand the season by doing more preliminary work with the WeDo or delving more into the challenge topic. Challenge release is August 1. Tournaments are in November in VA/DC.  2-4 (or even a lot more) hours per week needed, with many teams doing more.  The time pressure is real.  
Curriculum: Jr includes a session by session meeting guide (comes printed with each Inspire set, not online) and color workbook for each student.  Very doable for a rookie coach without much extra time. Some curriculum materials available, but much more open-ended = a lot more rookie coach planning time.
Meeting format: FLL Jr includes substantial free/creative building time within the curriculum.  The kit includes enough minifigure parts for the kids to build themselves, and they will.  The final team model has few restrictions. No free/creative building time. The team will need to build a robot that does specific missions, and most teams only have time and parts to explore a handful of robot designs before refining one.  
The Project and challenge topic Learn about the topic and build a Lego model showing how the challenge topic could be improved.  Present the team model and a poster to reviewers.  (Kids can do more if they want to.)Learn about the topic, a problem with the topic, and propose a solution/improvement.  Consult with experts and/or members of a community affected by the problem.  Some teams build a (non-Lego) prototype of their solution.   Give a presentation to the judges.

So what should you pick for kids on the line?
Start-up costs and time commitment are much less for FLL Jr.  It is a much easier program to start as a rookie coach and less workload for both kids and coaches.  
An apparent downside to starting in FLL Jr for a parent-coach is that you’ll need to buy a WeDo now and an EV3 in a couple years when your kid ages out of FLL Jr.  However, the cost of the yearly FLL registration is so much higher than FLL Jr participation that you won’t actually spend more money, even if you don’t resell the WeDo when done with it.

When should you put a nine-year old into FLL instead of FLL Jr?  
Perhaps after several years of FLL Jr or similar experiences, where you feel like you’ve exhausted the potential of FLL Jr. Or for a kid with really strong research skills (i.e. science fair) and/or strong programming (any language) and/or strong skills with Lego Technic and who enjoys competition.  Or if your child’s peer group (or older siblings) includes kids who are too old for FLL Jr, and it makes sense to keep the group together.

This document was created by Cathy Sarisky, FLL and FLL Jr coach.  Feedback and questions are very welcome to sarisky@roanoke.edu.
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