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  • Season feedback: Unfair competition and dumb posters.

    This was my first year as an assitant coach for a Lego First team (elementary age) in competition. (I previously did a Jr FIRST team but we did not compete). I don't think I will participate again, here is my feedback from this season.

    The positive.
    Programming: The kids learn to solve problems and gain basic programming skills. My son enjoyed this very much.
    Teamwork: It was very rewarding watching two kids tackle a problem and solve it together, and learn to listen to others' ideas.
    Service: I like the idea that we tie the challenge to a real-world problem to get the kids thinking about something other than themselves.
    Legos: Next to programming, building the kits was my son's favorite part.

    The negative.
    Price: Each kid paid $100 to join the team. I think that's a very high joining bar for this activity. I think I'd rather put that aside to buy my son his own robotics kit.
    Limited opportunity to program: We only had one laptop to do programming. This meant that in a team of 7 only two kids (at most) could do the programming portion at a time. We divided the kids up into three groups in rotation, and each spent one-third of the time on either the programming, the project poster or the core values poster. This meant that only 1/3 of the time were kids able to work with the robot, which is the ENTIRE reason to be there.
    Core Value and Project posters: I hated, hated, hated this part and so did my son. Nobody cared about the posters, everyone wanted to do programming. This portion was extremely adult-dependent as the instructions for completing the posters was confusing. It was just like the stuff they do in school, and nobody wants to join an after school program that just gives you more schoolwork. As a coach I really had to force them to do it over much whining and complaining. I have previously done other coaching activities, from Scouts to Soccer, and we sure didn't spend 2/3 of a soccer practice talking about it or making posters about it.
    Unfair competition: Our team was made up of kids from 4th and 5th grade. At the competition, we had to compete with middle school kids. Due to the wide gap in skill and maturity, of course the middle school teams rolled over the elementary teams. I don't know why they didn't divide the competition up into age or grade groups. No one would put a 4th grade soccer team against an 8th grade soccer team. Intellectual competition shouldn't be any different.
    Time commitment: Of course this will vary due to how different coaches work. Mine wanted to have two THREE HOUR practices per week. And I might mention that if you haven't tried before, it's VERY hard to focus elementary school kids for an hour at a time, much less three. And as a coach, this was far more time than I was really able to commit given my personal schedule.

    So I encourage your comments on my feedback. What did we get wrong? What should we have done differently as coaches to get more out of this activity? Is FIRST worth another try? At this point if I want my son to learn robotics and programming I think the time and money would be better spent with him one-on-one.

  • #2
    Re: Season feedback: Unfair competition and dumb posters.

    I can't speak to your concerns about price or limited opportunity to program. Those are decisions each team makes. The field kit is probably break even for Lego if you look at the average price per piece for regular sets.
    Poster requirements vary by region. In MA, they aren't required, but I've found it's a good way for the kids to organize their work (at least on the project end). I don't know about core values poster.

    In terms of competition, remember "what we learn is more important than what we win". The Lego and robot and competition are just tools to get the kids to learn and have fun. Unless you have different divisions (I think some places do), the robot scores will always tilt towards more experienced teams. That's true for most things. The great part is seeing teams grow as they gain experience. There are tons of stories of younger teams being inspired/motivated by seeing older teams do better.

    Of course none of the benefits come without time investment. Again, that's something that the teams and coaches control. It's usually very difficult for new teams (any team really) to achieve high robot scores in a couple of hours a week, but that doesn't mean they aren't learning or having fun along the way or that a team can't have a great season working a couple hours a week. Four or six hours a week for a team that wants to be competitive is probably typical, but that's a choice teams themselves make.

    There are some other kinds of competitions out there such as VEX or Destination Imagination you could explore if FLL isn't for you.
    Could you have a robot competition without core values and project--sure. In retrospect, though, some of our best experiences have been through meeting experts and sharing the project.
    Even though I complain about some of the details of rules or shared missions, FLL really is a well organized and run organization. I'm really thankful to the founders, FIRST, and the sponsors for giving my son and I this opportunity.

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    • #3
      Re: Season feedback: Unfair competition and dumb posters.

      Originally posted by LegoMAMA View Post

      Price: Each kid paid $100 to join the team. I think that's a very high joining bar for this activity. I think I'd rather put that aside to buy my son his own robotics kit.
      Our local FLL partner estimates that first year teams will spend about $800 per team, which is close to your $100 per kid for a team of 7. The costs do decrease in subsequent years, as teams don't need to buy a new EV3 each year.

      Originally posted by LegoMAMA View Post
      Limited opportunity to program: We only had one laptop to do programming.
      Find an additional laptop (or available desktop). It can take a little work and coordination to merge programs, but many teams do that.

      Originally posted by LegoMAMA View Post
      Core Value and Project posters:
      Our region doesn't require Core Value posters. Project posters aren't required, but many teams still do them. In any event, most teams spend at least 50% of their time on the project and core values related activities.

      Originally posted by LegoMAMA View Post
      Unfair competition:
      Our region (Minnesota) used to separate kids by grade level. Kids in grades 4 to 6 were in one division, and older kids were in another division. Our region stopped separating because we had many more younger teams than older teams, and we found there really wasn't much of a difference in robot performance scores between the two divisions.

      Originally posted by LegoMAMA View Post
      Time commitment:
      I found that elementary school age kids could tolerate longer sessions on weekend than they could immediately after school or in the evenings. Perhaps your team could have one 3 hour session on a weekend, and then a shorter session during the week. I recommend new teams start with about 4 hours a week and then adjust as fits their needs. It is perfectly OK to choose to spend less time.

      Originally posted by LegoMAMA View Post
      Is FIRST worth another try? At this point if I want my son to learn robotics and programming I think the time and money would be better spent with him one-on-one.
      Yes, if your sole objective is to teach your son robotics and programming, FLL is not very efficient. The focus of FLL is broader than that - trying to help kids to be good teammates and competitors, appreciate the role of science and technology in solving complex problems, and to have a good time with other kids.

      If you feel a little frustrated after your first season helping to coach, please do realize you are not alone. After my first season coaching, I swore I would never coach again. I ended up coaching 5 more seasons, and now have been a judge for another 5. Give it some time, and it might grow on you.
      Last edited by timdavid; 01-10-2017, 04:04 PM.

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      • #4
        Re: Season feedback: Unfair competition and dumb posters.

        Originally posted by LegoMAMA View Post
        Price: Each kid paid $100 to join the team. I think that's a very high joining bar for this activity. I think I'd rather put that aside to buy my son his own robotics kit.
        We run a handful of teams each year (4 this year) and charge $100/kid which covers the field kit, tournament registration, T-shirts, and odds and ends like replacement parts or special part requests. Our school PTA offers scholarships for kids who can't afford the fee. Cost per team is $225 for FIRST registration, $75 for the field kit, $100 per tournament, and about $75 for t-shirts. We have at least one team this year that will be at 3 tournaments (regional, sectional, state), so that team will have costs of about $675. Our program will probably not meet our total costs at $100/kid and we'll need a subsidy from our PTA. So, $100/kid is reasonable for mid-sized teams. The value of that $100 to you and your kid is something you'll have to decide. However, in my experience, very few Mindstorms kits get used outside of FLL. It will be fun to play with for a while, but kids quickly run out of things to do with them. FLL gives them something new to work on each year.

        Originally posted by LegoMAMA View Post
        Limited opportunity to program: We only had one laptop to do programming. This meant that in a team of 7 only two kids (at most) could do the programming portion at a time. We divided the kids up into three groups in rotation, and each spent one-third of the time on either the programming, the project poster or the core values poster. This meant that only 1/3 of the time were kids able to work with the robot, which is the ENTIRE reason to be there.
        Core Value and Project posters: I hated, hated, hated this part and so did my son. Nobody cared about the posters, everyone wanted to do programming. This portion was extremely adult-dependent as the instructions for completing the posters was confusing. It was just like the stuff they do in school, and nobody wants to join an after school program that just gives you more schoolwork. As a coach I really had to force them to do it over much whining and complaining. I have previously done other coaching activities, from Scouts to Soccer, and we sure didn't spend 2/3 of a soccer practice talking about it or making posters about it.
        Unfair competition: Our team was made up of kids from 4th and 5th grade. At the competition, we had to compete with middle school kids. Due to the wide gap in skill and maturity, of course the middle school teams rolled over the elementary teams. I don't know why they didn't divide the competition up into age or grade groups. No one would put a 4th grade soccer team against an 8th grade soccer team. Intellectual competition shouldn't be any different.
        If these are your concerns with FLL, FLL might not be right for you. The robot is not the entire point of FLL. FLL based on 3 equal parts, Robot Design, Research Project, and Core Values. Teams are specifically scored on how well they balance their time between those three things. If the team does not want to do the project or core values, they will not do well at the tournament. I have one kid this year that I will suggest not join FLL again because he refuses to work on anything but the robot until the team beats him into submission and he sits quietly sulking with the project kids. FLL is these 3 things, and if you only want to do one, you probably don't want to be in FLL. Actually, I think Scouts is pretty similar. Scouting is not just about camping. If you want to camp, but don't want to work on rank advancement or earning merit badges, then you aren't really doing Scouting.

        Competition is similar. FLL is about learning more than it is about competing. Competition provides a reason to learn, but the core values specifically state that it's about winning. In our rookie year we were told that we simply should not expect to do well in terms of awards, and even completing one mission should be considered a success. At the same time, I've seen quite a few young kids running up to pick up trophies.

        Originally posted by LegoMAMA View Post
        Time commitment: Of course this will vary due to how different coaches work. Mine wanted to have two THREE HOUR practices per week. And I might mention that if you haven't tried before, it's VERY hard to focus elementary school kids for an hour at a time, much less three. And as a coach, this was far more time than I was really able to commit given my personal schedule.
        3 hours is pretty long. We did 2.5 hour practices on Saturday mornings with multiple teams in the past, and most kids were falling apart by about 2 hours. My current team practices 2-4 hours a week in 2 sessions, with a break around 1 hour. If you get started early enough in the season, 2-3 hours a week should be adequate if you don't have World Festival ambitions.

        Originally posted by LegoMAMA View Post
        So I encourage your comments on my feedback. What did we get wrong? What should we have done differently as coaches to get more out of this activity? Is FIRST worth another try? At this point if I want my son to learn robotics and programming I think the time and money would be better spent with him one-on-one.
        Your kids are young, so it will be harder to get them to stay on task and they may have a harder time understanding the value of the non-robot stuff. That will improve as they get older. As a coach I really emphasize that FLL is an engineering competition that includes a robot. The project and core values are critical and equal parts of the program. Going into it with that attitude may make it easier for the kids to get excited about all aspects.

        I am biased since this is my 5th year as a coach, but FLL is definitely worth another try. Classes and books to learn robotics and programming are fine, but they tend to give you the answers. Follow the instructions and you'll recreate the thing somebody else invented. FLL will teach programming and robotics but also problem solving in a way you can't get in other activities because it's up to the kids to figure out what to build and program. Taking a class that teaches how to follow a line is interesting, but when you need to follow that line to solve a problem to get your robot to score some points is a totally different experience because the problem is at a higher level and the kids own the problem. Writing a line following program is cool, but using it to achieve a higher level goal results in deeper learning and more satisfaction. In FLL I say "how are you going to get your robot to hang off that wall" and the kids need to figure out the mechanics and techniques to do that, and programming is the easy part.

        So, I think that if your goal is to teach your kid programming, you can certainly do that from books and classes and whatever. However, FLL can teach programming in a much deeper way because it's not about the programming, it's about solving problems that the kids own vs. following lessons or instructions.

        (P.S. after reading Tim's comments: Coaching FLL can definitely be frustrating! I had to step away from my 6th graders at their last practice because I was on the verge of shouting at them and I needed to reset my emotions. Different teams have different dynamics, and it is tough to keep middle school kids on track. However, I usually see at least one of them at each practice have a great moment where they learned something or accomplished something that made them feel good. That makes it worthwhile.)
        Last edited by mkirkwood; 01-10-2017, 05:42 PM.

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        • #5
          Re: Season feedback: Unfair competition and dumb posters.

          FLL indeed does not meet your expectations as a robotics contest dedicated entirely to programming.

          I actually agree with some of your views, but I know that is not what FLL is built around and so don't couch it as such.
          The one I won't agree with is age splits, I think the kids that are wired for FLL - can get a tremendous value from it as 5th graders. But yea, it is a specific swath.

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          • #6
            Re: Season feedback: Unfair competition and dumb posters.

            Many times the younger teams have a big advantage, time. As kids get older they often get busier. FLL is right at the start of youth hockey season and it was a challenge fitting in school, hockey, FLL and life. That got more and more challenging as the girls got older. I can't imagine what it would have been like if my daughter stayed in FLL until she was 14 when she had hockey practice almost every night along with 2 hours of homework.

            If age was a big advantage in FLL, adults would be better at it than kids. This is usually not the case.

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            • #7
              Re: Season feedback: Unfair competition and dumb posters.

              I am a rookie coach with a rookie middle school team, and I have to confess that my team (including me) is in FLL mostly for the robot game. The project has a very science fair feel to it especially since our region requires a poster, and there is no expectation of a working prototype or solution. We saw some crazy stuff during our QT and my team's solution is totally uninspiring. They admit it is so, but are not motivated to do anything about it.

              My biggest concern is with "Core Values". In our QT it seemed like the teams with the most cheerleader-y approach (costumes, funny hats, chants and cheers) won the values awards. My team works well together, genuinely enjoy each other but are introverts and would never consider going up on stage and doing cheers. The team that won Project award had a skit to go with their presentation. That seems out of place in an "engineering" competition. Maybe FLL is an "engineering and marketing" competition?

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              • #8
                Re: Season feedback: Unfair competition and dumb posters.

                So I encourage your comments on my feedback. What did we get wrong?
                I don't think you got anything wrong, and your comments are very useful and well-stated.

                Due to the wide gap in skill and maturity, of course the middle school teams rolled over the elementary teams. I don't know why they didn't divide the competition up into age or grade groups. No one would put a 4th grade soccer team against an 8th grade soccer team.
                A lot of coaches and teams make this same mistake. They overlook this vitally important line from the Robot Game Rules, GP1:
                If you joined FIRST® LEGO® League with a main goal of “winning a robotics competition,” you’re in the wrong place!

                It's not really a robotics competition. It's a teamwork and technology program that uses robots as a trick to get the kids to participate.
                Last edited by Tom Mosher; 01-10-2017, 06:53 PM.
                FIRST LEGO League Mentor and Referee/Head Referee since 2011.

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                • #9
                  Re: Season feedback: Unfair competition and dumb posters.

                  The purpose of the solution is to identify a problem and devise a solution. The purpose of the presentation is to convey information. Both parts are very important. If you create a good solution and your presentation fails to inspire and inform nothing gets done. This is pretty much what happens in the real world. Global climate change didn't get much coverage until the proponents realized delivering their message to the science community wasn't getting anything done. For that matter I fail to see any reason for engineering unless it is accompanied by marketing. What good is designing a great product if nobody knows about it.

                  The project is what you make of it. I wouldn't feel inspired to make a poster either. I did feel kind of inspired when my team built a working hydro-electric plant in my backyard. I felt energized when we became guerilla filmmakers, grabbing footage for our presentation without permission (Ok, I got permission ahead of time, but the team thought they were living on the edge and their excitement was catching). I enjoy learning something new and going on field trips each year. The only time I didn't enjoy the project was the Power Puzzle challenge where we had to do an energy audit. I had a tough time coming up with something interesting for that, and I even have access to lots of fun HVAC tools.

                  Most teams I work with a lot start out preferring the robot game and end up spending most of their time on the project. Pushing stuff around on a mat is only interesting for a little while, but you can make the project as challenging and interesting as you want.

                  Originally posted by Ozymandias View Post
                  I am a rookie coach with a rookie middle school team, and I have to confess that my team (including me) is in FLL mostly for the robot game. The project has a very science fair feel to it especially since our region requires a poster, and there is no expectation of a working prototype or solution. We saw some crazy stuff during our QT and my team's solution is totally uninspiring. They admit it is so, but are not motivated to do anything about it.

                  My biggest concern is with "Core Values". In our QT it seemed like the teams with the most cheerleader-y approach (costumes, funny hats, chants and cheers) won the values awards. My team works well together, genuinely enjoy each other but are introverts and would never consider going up on stage and doing cheers. The team that won Project award had a skit to go with their presentation. That seems out of place in an "engineering" competition. Maybe FLL is an "engineering and marketing" competition?
                  Last edited by Dean Hystad; 01-10-2017, 07:29 PM.

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    Re: Season feedback: Unfair competition and dumb posters.

                    Originally posted by Dean Hystad View Post
                    The purpose of the solution is to identify a problem and devise a solution. The purpose of the presentation is to convey information. Both parts are very important. If you create a good solution and your presentation fails to inspire and inform nothing gets done. This is pretty much what happens in the real world. Global climate change didn't get much coverage until the proponents realized delivering their message to the science community wasn't getting anything done. For that matter I fail to see any reason for engineering unless it is accompanied by marketing. What good is designing a great product if nobody knows about it.

                    The project is what you make of it. I wouldn't feel inspired to make a poster either. I did feel kind of inspired when my team built a working hydro-electric plant in my backyard. I felt energized when we became guerilla filmmakers, grabbing footage for our presentation without permission (Ok, I got permission ahead of time, but the team thought they were living on the edge and their excitement was catching). I enjoy learning something new and going on field trips each year. The only time I didn't enjoy the project was the Power Puzzle challenge where we had to do an energy audit. I had a tough time coming up with something interesting for that, and I even have access to lots of fun HVAC tools.
                    That is true, but most middle schoolers have enough science fair opportunities that the project seems very similar to them. Most teams in our QT, including the winning team, did not have a working prototype. Just a poster. Its possible that next year if the same team continues, they will tire of the robot game and focus more on the project, but honestly, there are many more and better venues for that in our region (silicon valley)

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                    • #11
                      Re: Season feedback: Unfair competition and dumb posters.

                      Thanks for all your great comments, I just want to address a couple of things.

                      I get it isn't about winning. Personally, I would have loved to have not competed at all, and just spent our practices trying to complete more of the challenges, and discussing core values and designing our project, but not doing a poster for either. But that wasn't my call. What I didn't love was the look on our kids' faces as they showed up at a competition and realized that they had no chance to win whatsoever. If FIRST wants to push "It's not about winning," they should drop the competition format and instead have local scrimmages where teams work together and learn from each other instead of being ranked against their peers. As such, the way it's designed is more about competing and not learning, which is unfortunate. It forced us to focus on just a few high-scoring challenges instead of trying all of them, and we spent undue time on making a "Core Values Poster" instead of actually practicing core values. Literally. I mean we had the kids trying to understand what "Coopertition" is and defining it and trying to explain how we practiced that and then trying to come up with pictures for it. Values are important- but in my opinion this should be the coaches' focus (rather than the kids' focus), with help from the program.

                      For example, if they want kids to practice teamwork they might provide a list of teambuilding exercises that relate to the project theme. We tried to do this but it was really hard to come up with appropriate activities and the materials to do them with Much less a different activity for every meeting. That should be part of the curriculum in my opinion. If you want to use the Scouts example, both Cubs and Boy Scouts provide a detailed curriculum which must be completed to gain rank or get a badge, usually with options along the way. FIRST might think about providing that for coaches to help out. I found the materials they provided to be very difficult to understand and poorly organized. It wasn't written for laymen.

                      Another great program example I'll use is the Upward sports program. That program emphasizes values over winning, they go out of their way to make teams with even skill levels, and they provide a detailed curriculum to the coaches that explains how to teach a core value at each practice.

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                      • #12
                        Re: Season feedback: Unfair competition and dumb posters.

                        Curriculum is a dirty word in some FLL circles. Curriculum is a school thing, and FLL is supposed to counter the soul sucking way that schools approach STEM related topics. The very last thing I want to see is a uniform curriculum for FLL. That would be the death of the program. I like that FLL provides little guidance on HOW. Teams are supposed to figure out how, even how the team is supposed to be run. I have a curriculum I've developed over many years in FLL, but it gets changed for every team because ultimately it is the kids, not I, who decides which direction the team follows. I only provide guidance.

                        Never for a second think that FLL isn't about winning. What we learn is more important than what we win, but winning is still good. It is obvious that FIRST and FLL are very pro-competition. Teams are encouraged to play as hard as they can to win while following the rules and treating other teams with respect. Without the robot game and tournaments there would be 20 teams in FLL worldwide. That there are over 28,000 teams shows that the competition/learning mix works. FLL is trying to get the benefits of competition (fun, passion, excitement) without the nasty side effects (cheating, anger, violence). For the most part they pull this off pretty well. I look at it more as FLL is trying to reshape competition into something better. I judge Destination Imagination and FLL. I almost never see kids crying in the halls at a FLL tournament and I almost never see kids jumping and screaming in with excitement at a DI tournament. I always see at least one total meltdown at a DI tournament. Maybe robots are good at teaching us how to deal with disappointment.

                        If you are doing teamwork exercises to improve teamwork you aren't working on teamwork enough. I try to make everything a teamwork exercise. The way we solve missions is a teamwork exercise which we evaluate and constantly try to improve. The way we divide up work is a teamwork activity. The way we build and program the robot are teamwork activities. The way we choose a project topic is a teamwork activity. How we do our research is a teamwork activity. Heck, deciding when to talk when we are in a group is a teamwork activity. What is typically referred to as a "teamwork activity" is only useful for dysfunctional teams. We occasionally do them for fun, and I do them with a brand new team so we can talk about what makes an effective team and how we can work together better, but most FLL teams have no need for teamwork activities.
                        Last edited by Dean Hystad; 01-11-2017, 08:05 AM.

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                        • #13
                          Re: Season feedback: Unfair competition and dumb posters.

                          What you are suggesting is an awfully high bar for a volunteer coach. I can devote an hour a week to planning, no more (although I spent FAR more than that). I have a job and other responsibilities to attend to, and for FIRST to provide a neat, ready-to-go book of suggestions on how to run a meeting would make coaching easier and make me more likely to come back as a volunteer. Don't call it curriculum, call it "suggested activities" if you want. If you don't want kids and volunteers to hate it, if you want to grow the activity, if you want to make kids tell their friends how much they loved it, then make it easier to plan and organize instead of having such a steep learning curve you chase people away before they really figure out how to do it. I did the best I could as a first-time coach, and I will not do it again as it required too much time and resources from me, and I don't think the kids got out of it what they were supposed to. There are other activities I think provide the same positive values and skills that are better run and organized in my opinion.

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                          • #14
                            Re: Season feedback: Unfair competition and dumb posters.

                            Originally posted by LegoMAMA View Post
                            What you are suggesting is an awfully high bar for a volunteer coach. I can devote an hour a week to planning, no more (although I spent FAR more than that). I have a job and other responsibilities to attend to, and for FIRST to provide a neat, ready-to-go book of suggestions on how to run a meeting would make coaching easier and make me more likely to come back as a volunteer.
                            Perhaps something like this?

                            https://fllblog.wordpress.com/2016/0...r-first-steps/

                            FIRST® has received a lot of feedback from new coaches in recent seasons and we have listened! One of the most frequent requests we’ve received is for more guidance on how to coach a FIRST LEGO League team during a coach’s first season. In response, FIRST has worked with several veteran coaches to develop FIRST Steps. FIRST Steps is a free, online course designed as a step-by-step guide for every activity, process, discussion, or decision a first-year coach needs to complete with their team.

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                            • #15
                              Re: Season feedback: Unfair competition and dumb posters.

                              ...they showed up at a competition and realized that they had no chance to win whatsoever.
                              This is a great opportunity to talk with those teams and learn everything you can from them. The coach's job is to make that encounter with expertise a positive rather than a negative experience.

                              Being a FLL coach is not an easy task. FIRST should do all they can to equip new coaches with useful tools.
                              FIRST LEGO League Mentor and Referee/Head Referee since 2011.

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