The Brainiac Maniacs Advance to FIRST Lego League World Championship with Support from Schneider Electric and Girl Scouts

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Written by Guest Blogger, James McGill

Why STEM for Kids

I have always been passionate about developing interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) for children, especially girls as I am the father of two daughters.  STEM opens up a world of possibilities for children in terms of knowledge, leadership, and potential careers.  There is a special joy at seeing children learn and develop beyond what they thought they could do and knowing you’ve made a positive impact on their lives.

Our Experience with FLL

My wife, Josephine, and I became involved in FIRST Lego League (FLL) about 5 years ago when our oldest daughter joined a team sponsored by the Girl Scouts.  FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was created to inspire young people’s interest and participation in science and technology.  FLL is aimed specifically for 9-14 year old children, and uses Lego Mindstorms technology, which includes a programmable “brain” with motors, sensors and toolkit to teach kids about robots.  It has three elements:  Robot Game, Project and Core Values.  For the robot game, the team creates and programs a robot to complete missions with different point values on a course in 2.5 minutes.  For the project, the team researches and presents a solution to a real-world problem.  Finally, for core values section, the team shows how FLL has benefited them and others as well as demonstrating teamwork by solving a challenge.

The History of the Brainiac Maniacs

We saw the many benefits that FLL provided Kyna in terms of leadership, teamwork and just plain enjoyment, so in 2014 we started coaching our own team named the “Brainiac Maniacs” composed of Girl Scouts from San Jacinto County.  Every year since then, the Brainiac Maniacs has won one or more awards, including robot design, project research, core values (teamwork) and has gone to the regional championships.  Over the past two years, the team has had sponsorship from Schneider Electric, which provides monetary support by a grant and other types of support.

Brainiac Maniacs:  2017 Edition

For the 2017 FLL season, Kyna and the rest of the team “aged out” of FLL as they all turned 14, and so we started a new team of 8-to-10 year-old Girl Scouts, including Ava, our youngest daughter.  The team is composed of 10 girls with diverse backgrounds, including Chinese, Indian, African-American and Caucasian.  Even more inspiring is that 9 of the 10 girls had not been involved in robotics before.  They had to learn while doing against many teams that were older and more experienced, but their passion, knowledge, determination and just plain joy carried the day!  They had so much fun that they even made a parody song as part of a FIRST competition

The 2017-2018 Journey

Each year, FLL has a theme which is the basis of the robot game and guides the team projects.  The 2017-2018 season theme is Hydro Dynamics, which focuses on ways to improve the human water cycle.  The robot game course included missions such as putting water (a Lego cylinder) into a fountain, watering flowers, etc.  The team did very well and designed and programmed a robot that used a gyroscope for more accurate turns and a light sensor to detect lines on the course.

For the project, the team identified lawn overwatering as the problem as many people over-water their lawns by 30%-300%.  The solution they created is the Water Wizard™, which is an app combined with lawn watering solutions. Based on their 500+ survey responses (including many Schneider Electric employees), the Water Wizard could save more than 300,000 gallons/week/home, which is enough to provide water to 140 homes!

During the December 2017 FLL local qualifier in Katy, Texas, the judging went smoothly, but the first robot game was very challenging.  Due to a gyroscope malfunction, nothing worked and the team scored a 0.  Our hearts ached for them, and many of the team (and a few adults as well) were crying by the end, but it was great to see so many people console them, including their parents, tournament officials and other teams!  Instead of folding, they rebounded, figured out the problem and how to deal with it if it happened again.  For the second match, another two team members went up and their score placed them third out of 24 teams.  For the last match, the two members that had the malfunction came back with fire in their eyes and had a perfect run, which put them in first place score, where they remained!  They won first place for Robot Performance and first place for project research, which gave them 1 of 8 tickets to the FLL Regional Championship.

The FLL Regional Championship

They then prepared for the FLL Regional Championship by improving their robot, programs and presentations over six weeks.  Unfortunately, the day before the championship, some of the programs that had been operating nearly flawlessly stopped working.  They saw that one wheel was wobbling, so they took the robot apart and found that some of the parts had cracked and warped due to significant use over the 6 months.  They replaced them and it mostly fixed the problem, but there was still more variability than before.

At the Regional Championship, they were ranked a respectable 8th place out of 60 teams in robot performance (as the robot still had some variability) and thought they did well during the judging sessions.  The judges were actually very impressed by their in-depth knowledge, support for one another, and just plain grit!  At the award ceremony, the suspense built and the Brainiac Maniacs were announced as the winner of the First Place Champion’s Award and the team going to the FLL World Championship in Houston from April 18-21!  Out of 33,000 FLL teams globally, they are one of only 108 from 45 countries going to the World Championship!

A Sweet Bonus

In addition, my oldest daughter Kyna’s FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) team CRyptonite (Team 624) recently competed and won the El Paso regional competition.  They are now going to the FIRST World Championship, as well!

So, we are very proud parents as both our youngest daughter Ava and our oldest daughter Kyna are now going to the FIRST world championship.

Lessons Learned

There were a few lessons the team learned:

  1. Things happen, don’t let it keep you down!
  2. Hard work pays off, if not by winning, then by learning and doing!
  3. Focus on doing well in all areas, not just excellent in one!
  4. Work together as team and support one another
  5. Winning is sweet, but it’s not everything! Having FUN is!

Thank You to the Girl Scouts and Schneider Electric

I am very thankful that the Girl Scouts supports programs such as FLL and to work for Schneider Electric, which provides strong support for STEM through grants from the Schneider Electric North America Foundation, which provides grants for FIRST teams, such as the Brainiac Maniacs, and our employees that that provided support and feedback for their project.

I am very proud to work for Schneider Electric, which supports both of my daughters’ teams.  The Girl Scouts, FIRST and Schneider Electric have made an impact on these girls’ lives that they won’t soon forget!


About the Author

James McGill is the Vice President of Software Engagement in the Digital Plant business of Schneider Electric.  He has a Masters in Chemical Engineering and an MBA.  He has two daughters aged 15 and 10 and volunteers in a number of activities including FIRST, Destination Imagination, Girl Scouts, Mensa and others.


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