Citizen Schools Apprenticeship Culminates in Robotics Competition

James Wesselman is a retired engineer who became involved with FIRST AmeriCorp VISTA program in partnership with Citizen Schools because he believed it was an excellent opportunity to give back and be involved with the youth of our future by sharing his enthusiasm in robotics.


A team of five intrepid students from Fischer Renaissance participated in a FIRST LEGO League (FLL) Qualifier tournament at Santa Clara High School November 11, 2018 as part of a Citizen School Apprenticeship.  Lead by by a team of mentors, and Americorps members James Wesselman (myself) and Jamila Mentuhotep (Citizen Schools Teaching Fellows), the team finished the fun filled day ranking 6th in the robot game outperforming experienced better funded teams.  

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is a international non-profit supporting K-12 STEM education through four independent progressive robotic competitions including FIRST LEGO League (FLL). FLL utilizes the Lego Mindstorms Robot in a yearly updated challenge performed on a 4’x8’ field and including judging of projects, robot design and core values.  This year’s challenge, “Into Orbit,” required participants to research and propose solutions for humans long term survival in space.

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While completing the challenge, the students learned more than a few basic concepts of programming.  They transformed into young engineers through the iterative process of building the Lego robot and fine tuning the code to accomplish missions. The students came to appreciate that some missions are easy and some are hard, but all are fun.  While preparing for and participating in the qualifier, the students developed friendships and experienced the power of collaboration. Teaching Fellow Jamila Mentuhotep observed, “Students progress with collaboration and problem-solving through the weeks was seemingly exponential. The closer we were to the qualifier the more I saw the team admire each other’s differences and encourage each other’s strengths. The team’s participation in the qualifier was a testament to teamwork!”

As exciting as watching the match when the team scored their high score, what all the mentors will remember best was the week before the match. The members of the team stayed later and later to complete and refine programming and robots to complete the chosen missions. As campus director, Seung Lee described the evening,

“5 students in Lego Robotics came into the Citizen Schools office to work on their "missions" for a competition they will be participating in. Each student had a specific role on this team and were busy either constructing the robots or programming the "mission" paths. Bonnie was at the helm leading the team and ensuring each team member was working equally.

It was time for supper, but none of the students wanted to be taken away. So as any great team captain would do, Bonnie volunteered to grab suppers and bring them back for the team. 5pm rolled around and students had to leave, but Alex, a student who normally leaves at then, wanted to stay behind and continue learning how to program the robots. Without hesitation James continued working with Alex until 6pm.”


Although the schedule was short, there was just enough time allowed in the 10 weeks to introduce the Mindstorms robot, programming and FLL challenge to the students, teach some basic coding and build skills to participate in a qualifier.  The chance to participate in an event, competing with other teams provides inspiration to the students to strive harder and learn more.

I am impressed and proud of the students in Lego Robotics for their continuous engagement and enthusiasm with the FLL Challenge and particularly of their success at the qualifier competition.  I witnessed their ability to work together, innovate and present themselves positively. Through their eyes I see a bright future.