Profile: Building a Better Robotics Team

Profile: Building a Better Robotics Team

Speech training scores as
the X-Bots’ secret weapon.

By Anna Jaworski, ATMS, CL

Photo Caption: (From left) Alex Jaworski, 15, Nicolas Kwan, 15, and Cheyne Murray, 14, participated in the Texas State Robotics Expo last year in Austin, Texas. Nicolas holds the team-built robot, BURT.

Why did you create a robot with wheels instead of treads?”

“What were your duties on the team?”

“What did you do when team members disagreed about how to build one of the arms for solving a mission?”

Those are just a few of the questions my robotics teams, comprised of children ages 8–14, have had to answer over the years. They were given five minutes to answer a barrage of questions about robotic design and programming, teamwork issues and their research.

As a FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) LEGO League (FLL) coach, I have used my Toastmasters training to help my team. It’s no coincidence that during the four years I’ve been coaching, my robotics team has brought home trophies. With their improved communication skills, my students are better prepared for their competitions.

Do the questions in the first paragraph look like Table Topics? They did to me. After a few years of preparing for competitions, I realized how valuable Toastmasters training could be for my team. I asked parents and team members to help me remember the types of questions they had been asked in the past and then, with the help of a fellow Toastmaster, created a list of Table Topics for the team. In the past, my team members tended to give monosyllabic answers. Consequently, my goal was to help them respond to the judges more eloquently.

FIRST LEGO League was founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway Human Transporter, to make science and technology tangible for children by introducing real-world problems and asking them to come up with real-world solutions. The league uses special robotic kits created by LEGO that have motors, sensors and a “brain” – a special LEGO part that communicates with a computer. This allows the children to create autonomous robots (robots that respond to a computer program, versus remote-controlled robots).

Every year, FIRST comes up with a theme and a challenge to solve. Teams are told the theme a year in advance, but they aren’t given the challenges until about 10 weeks before their competition. The robotic challenges are presented on a 4’ x 8’ playing field where the FLL teams create autonomous robots that solve as many missions as possible in a scant two-and-a-half minutes.

During the first two years I was a robotics coach, I was more worried about the robot performance portion of the competition than the research and presentations. We did the research project and the research presentation, but my team suffered from an inability to accurately and concisely explain to others what they had done. The first year we participated, a 14-year-old boy on my team was new to robotics. When the judge asked him about his contribution to our research project, he said, “I didn’t do anything.”

I was mortified! Each of my team members had gone on a field trip, researched different aspects of the project and practiced their presentation as a team. This boy simply froze and chose to deny he’d done anything rather than tell the judge what he knew.

Then in the third year, the light bulb came on and I realized my team was expected to answer the equivalent of Table Topics. Of course it doesn’t say that in the Coaches’ Handbook, but I started to see what my students needed to do from a Toastmaster’s perspective.

“Why did you use wheels instead of treads?” I asked the team this year in preparation for their Technical Presentation. At first the boys simply looked at each other. “Come on!” I encouraged, “Think back to the beginning of the season. Let’s talk about what we did.”

The boys discussed how they’d divided into two groups to complete their assignment, which was to create one robot with wheels geared down to be a little slower and more accurate and another robot with treads geared up to move faster. The robots were given a challenge – retrieve an object and bring it back to base. After a few minutes of discussion I asked the question again. This time I got a response! But it was sloppy and longwinded, so I asked the team, “How can we say that more precisely?”

More discussion followed until veteran team member Alex came forward and said, “We used wheels instead of treads because the robot with treads was too big to maneuver through all the competition areas. Even though we geared it up, it moved too slowly for us to accomplish many missions. Our robot with wheels was faster, more accurate and small enough to get to all the missions.” Bingo!

For the research presentation, the teams are expected to put together a five-minute multi-media presentation and then spend five minutes answering questions from the judges. For the robotic-design presentation, the team is expected to spend five minutes detailing how they created and programmed their robot. Then they are given five minutes to answer questions from the judges. For the teamwork presentation they’re given 10 minutes for the judges to observe how the team works together. They also answer questions about their duties and what they learned by participating.

For the first two years, I helped my team with their presentations by writing what they needed to say on note cards. The boys read from the cards to answer the judges’ questions. At the end of the second tournament, I asked one of the judges what my team could have done better. “Get rid of the note cards,” the judge said emphatically. As we learn in Toastmasters, people listen and appreciate speakers who really know what they’re talking about instead of reading from a script.

Now, we prepare comprehensively. Throughout the season, my co-coach and I ask the children questions about what they are doing. Parents act as judges, and the kids keep a blog that details what they do during our meetings. We help the children learn correct vocabulary and good language usage in answering questions. As we often do in Toastmasters, my students write out their presentations and practice them. They understand the importance of their time limits. They rewrite their presentations until they are concise.

The week before the competition, we meet to practice presentations before family members, who also ask practice questions. When the boys have trouble answering a question concisely, the whole team comes together to suggest better responses.

My robotics team has won prizes every year since I began sharing simple Toastmasters principles:

1st Year: 1st place Ocean Odyssey Research Award.

2nd Year: 3rd place Robot Performance and 2nd place Champion’s Award.

3rd Year: 3rd place Robot Performance and 1st place Power Puzzle Research Award.

4th Year: State Champion’s Tournament in central Texas: 3rd place Robot Performance and 2nd place Champion’s Award (for exemplary scores in research, robotic design, robotic performance and teamwork).

By winning the Champion’s Award, the highest award given to an FLL team, my team, the X-Bots, earned a place at the international tournament. They were invited to attend the FLL World Festival in Atlanta, Georgia, at the Georgia Dome.

This amazing growth in the team proved that their work on communication skills was worthwhile. The Toastmasters advice I shared gave them a distinct edge in the competition, as well as skills they’ll use for the rest of their lives.

Anna Jaworski, ATMS, CL, belongs to Texas Stars Toastmasters in Belton, Texas. Reach her at