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This coming weekend, the qualifiers for the semi-finals of the Central European FIRST-LEGO-League (FLL) Championship compete in Bonn for a place in the finals in Cottbus next year where the finalists from over 800 teams of 10-16 year-olds pit their skills against each other. Our team made it once so I know how tough the competition is, but this year's leg in Walldorf blew me away.

Or to put it in perspective, the performance of all teams I saw in Walldorf has reached unbelievable heights since I first took part as a spectator six years ago, and I'm sure the same is true for the competition in USA and Asia and the rest of world.

The competition started in 1998 - reached Europe in 2001 (pilot - that's good IT practice) - and is a worldwide event with identical rules (apart from the finals which have "playing fields" made up in imperial inches much to my team's disappointment two years ago).

The rules are simple - ten weeks to prepare for the competition - a robot match and a research project, plus additional prizes for teamwork, design and programming... The robot is built and designed by the team using a LEGO MINDSTORMS robotic kit and any LEGO pieces you can get your hands on. This robot has to be programmed by the team to complete an obstacle course, collecting objects on the way. Apart from restrictions on your robots size and the number of motors and sensors it can use (light, infrared, touch), there are no guidelines about what the team should try in terms of tools (built from LEGO blocks), strategy, movement....


Figure 1: Fault tolerance is what it's all about. Fault tolerance in the robot design, fault tolerance in the programming and fault tolerance in the team. On stage in front of an audience of 400, floodlights, tv-crews, it's not easy and human error ruined this run. This is the face of team spirt after disaster (they did good in the end)

The research project involves researching a theme and then coming up with an innovative solution to a problem identified by the team. My lips are sealed about what the winning solutions were because the competition is still in progress, but innovative and well researched they were. In fact the teams learn all sorts of soft skills as they hone their innovation. Not just presentation, but what preparation is needed to interview an expert;  how do you get past the assistant in order to schedule an interview with that person; how do you pace yourselves; How do you get past simply good ideas to ideas that knock the judges off their chairs? By the way, the SAP Nano Giants used SCRUM methodology to make sure they won first prize in the teamwork category.

Okay, this is blatant advertising, but our own experience is that the SAP Walldorf leg is one the most difficult to get past. Just look at the highscores on the Web. SAP teams  who qualified from here went on to reach world finals in the USA, Asia or the open European event (fond memories of the SAP Allstars with the LEGO tools stuck in their hats). I am so grateful to SAP for sponsoring this event, in particular the doughnuts which give the kids that little extra burst of enthusiasm towards the end of a tough and adrenalin-drained day. Apples, of course, too. Even though this event is hosted by SAP, it is not only the SAP employees' teams taking part. There's the legendary Leimbach Submarines, teams submitted by SAP partners in Walldorf, by local schools...It’s an important event on the local calendar of just about every family living in the area.
Worth an award of their own are  the smaller local events hosted by local industries with an eye to encouraging local youth - a hotpot of ideas, Websites, research, online simulations.... The generation they're encouraging is going to be so focused, so skilled, so innovative... you've got to see it in action to believe it.


Figure 2: This is no longer a niche event. Seats are hard to come by.

In Walldorf, I was so fascinated by the sheer number of genius ideas that I watched every single one of the twenty two robots compete with each other until only two were left in the finals.  It was riveting. At one point I asked the coach of the SAP Robonova XL (who eventually won) how on earth they'd programmed the hydraulics that helped the robot squeeze through a gap collecting objects as it went - his answer - I don't have a clue either, ask the team. I tell you the FLL is inspiring a nation of [start-strikeout]engineers? researchers? programmers? scientists?[end-strikeout] ... there's not a single word that does justice to their skills properly - but they're just what our industry needs. And I’m very proud of the fact that the capacity here in Walldorf has grown too big to handle and overflowed into neighbouring events which are growing too as the word spreads.

And @Parents... for the children this competition really wakes them up to real-world excitement like no video game can do. It’s the difference between playing soccer on the field, as opposed to playing on the games console. Adrenalin is a factor 100 higher. The thrill of seeing changes they’ve suggested implemented in their local environment by the local council, or a response from a major manufacturing company, or even just appearing on stage is something that just takes their self-confidence and into another ball-park. Understanding that things (e.g. robots) misbehave in the real world, but they can control this nevertheless - priceless for the team and their educational development, too. That_S why it's called over here.

Six years ago our team came right at the bottom of the list in terms of points, but they spotted that one or two things went right, and for the next twelve months everyone of the team fevered for next year’s competition. Some things go wrong, some things go right - there is no failure in this competition.

Figure 3: The SAPollo 7 failed by the skin of their teeth to get through to the next round for two years in a row - did they give up? - read their jubilation at making it in 2011!

So if you get the chance to go to Bonn or one of the other regional finals, do it. Take your own or your neighbours' kids with you. And with a bit of luck, after feeling the buzz first hand - you’ll be forming a team of your own to compete in next year’s competition. But watch out for the winners of the Walldorf heat: SAP Robonova XL, SAP Nano Giants, SAPollo 7 (three qualify from Walldorf because of the large number of entrants here) because they are hot, hot, hot.

Now, if only I could persuade my adult colleagues to take up some of the strategies our FLL team devised - this would take my project at SAP to new heights 😉

*** Update - through to the Central European Final are:

SAP Robonova XL.
SAPollo 7 came 5th and so just missed (by the skin of their teeth again) getting to the final (the top 4 qualify) but they did get to the final of the robot knockout where they were beaten by GermFree (Rheine.) I wish I'd been there to see GermFree getting a staggering 285 points in the robot competition, the high score of the day. Also qualified are Epunkt e. (the champion of this heat from Paderborn) and  RtS (also Paderborn - that's clealy another hotspot of talent.)