Recently I got the chance to interview Tom McKeown, Nancy Keenan, and Megan Vernon about FLL in their school—Regent Heights Public School in Ontario Canada.  At Regent Heights Public School, all the students are involved in FLL.  Since bringing FLL into the school, many of the students have been accepted into specialized programs at very hard to attend high schools.

Me: To start off with a fun question, what is your favorite flavor of ice cream?
Tom: Butterscotch with maple syrup. Yum
Nancy: pralines and cream
Megan: Mint chocolate chip (made with fair trade chocolate and fresh Ontario mint)!

Me: What is your role with FIRST LEGO League? And how long have you been involved?
Nancy: Principal of Regent Heights – my role is to make sure I find money to support the program – not easy, but well worth it! I am one of the judges for our ‘in school’ Junior competition This is my 2nd year involved.
Tom: My primary role has been that of a coach/mentor. Regent Heights has been involved for 6 years.
Megan: Team mentor, and mentor to other teachers using FLL in their classrooms. I have been coaching since 2005 and this year I will be attending my 6th tournament.

Me: What is your favorite (or funniest) FLL memory?
Tom: The one memory that I will never forget really goes back to the first season (Ocean Odyssey). Megan and I were running the first team and it was getting toward competition time and our team had not completed any of the missions, then they did, they were all cheering and giving each other hi fives. I thought wow if students could be this engaged in learning, what could accomplish if they were engaged all the time.
Nancy: I just love watching the groups working on their missions and helping each other out. I loved how many of our intermediate students incorporated robotics into their Science Fair projects just as a natural extension.
Megan: Not so funny at the time, but I like the values in this story. In 2008, our boys team was technically stronger than our girls team. However, the night before the tournament, they had a teamwork malfunction, and took their whole robot apart. They had to rebuild on the day of the tournament and learn to pull together. The girls team was nervous about their first tournament, but were very good problem solvers and very supportive of each other, and to their surprise, made it into the semi-finals! Teamwork triumphs over technical ability!

Me: How many students have gone through FLL in your school?
Megan: Including this year, about 650 students in grades 4-6.
Tom: We run FLL as a curriculum initiative in the Junior Division, to engage boys in literacy and girls in science and technology. Each class is divided up into teams of four or five and each class has four or five teams. Then we hold a competition in the school during a school day and the top two or three teams go on to the regional competition. Since 2007, each fall Regent Heights Buzzes with electricity as the students work towards the competition and then the day of the in school competition, your hair stands up with level of intensity within in the school. It is utterly amazing.
Nancy: FLL started in our school in 2005 with one team – 2006 – 2 teams, 2007-2010 entire Junior Division

Me: Have you seen any differences in students before vs. after going through the program?
Tom: Yes, definitely, they have better ability in working in teams, problem solving skills are heightened, and they are more engaged as learners. They also have developed core attributes that will help them as they progress through their schooling.
Megan: They are more willing to take risks in their learning and less afraid to try solving problems on their own. They are more interested in learning about science and technology.
Nancy: Last year we had 8/34 of our grade 8 students accepted to specialized high school programs for Math and Science. We also had one of our students in grade 8 go on to the Nationals for the Science Fair for his invention of a Robotic Arm.

Me: How do students involved in FLL compare to those not involved?
Megan: When I see new students enter our school in grade 6 or 7, they seem surprised to learn that in robotics they are expected to guide their own learning and solve problems for themselves. They spend some time looking a little lost without teacher-centered instruction, but they watch the experienced kids around them and learn how to experiment and think for themselves.
Tom: Since the purpose at Regent Heights has been to involve all students, it is a difficult question to answer, even special needs children are involved, no one is excluded.
Nancy:  It is part of our curriculum from Grade 4 – 8, so they are all involved. This year we are also starting an extra curricular club

Me: Overall, how has FLL changed your school?
Tom: When Regent Heights started participating in FLL it was a K to 6 school, the impact on the students, the community and the staff was incredible, it made the all things possible. Regent Heights P.S. is considered an inner-city school, and through FLL we have afforded the students endless possibilities, since 2007 we have spent around $40 000 on robotics.  The original start-up was with a grant from the Toronto District School Board of $10 000.00 with which we bought about 20 RCX kits now we are in the process of replacing with NXT kits.  Two years ago Regent Heights added a grade 7 and then last year grade 8. The students in that class, some of them from 2006, but most from 2007, participated in FLL. When the class graduated last, around 30% of the students went on to Specialized High school programs with a focus on Math and Science and Leadership. That amount from one class getting into limited spaced programs is unheard of in Toronto.  How it has changed Regent Heights, I would say fundamentally. I was on a Principal’s course were they taught us that Canada is in the top five internationally when it comes to skills but bottom 10% when it comes to student engagement. Student engagement is directed addressed by the FLL program at Regent Heights P.S.
Megan: It has helped us see different strengths in our students.
Nancy: Students are much more comfortable with technology and problem solving – after realizing that when we set up mixed groups (boys and girls), boys tended to take over the building and girls were more comfortable doing the presentations. As a result we now have ‘all girl’ and ‘all boy’ groups to ensure that students are involved in both building and presenting.

Me: What would you say to schools thinking about getting involved in FLL?
Tom: If you want to see students focused and engaged in student centered learning, then FLL is the definitely the way to go. I think it has fundamental changed the way I view education and the way  I teach, so if you want a life changing experience, go for it!
Nancy: Well worth the investment – you need at least 2 very keen staff to support the program as it takes many teachers initially out of their comfort zone until they realize they don’t need to teach it! The kids do the teaching and problem solving. It is also a great way to have students improve their teamwork skills and promote active listening. The hands on learning experience has a much greater impact
Megan: To teachers: Be willing to let go of control of the learning in your classroom. Be willing to let your children take the lead as they teach each other, and you! You’ll be surprised at which kids shine and how much they can teach you!

Me: What is your best tip for current FLL teams?
Tom: Enjoy every moment and do your best and to the mentors, let the kids do it, because they will reap the reward in their skills and abilities.
Nancy: Make it happen, persevere!
Megan: Stop about a week before the tournament. Don’t try to work on any new material at this point. Practice what you’ve got. Get comfortable running your robot in simulated tournament conditions. Talk about the value of “gracious professionalism”. Remember to have fun!

Me: Is there anything else you would like FLLers around the world to know?
Tom: You are part of an amazing thing and relish every moment, and as you chose your pathway in life remember the time you spent in FLL and the how much you enjoyed it.
Nancy: Make the investment – It will pay huge dividends down the line and help prepare our students for a world filled with technology and problems to be solved!

What a good testimony to FLL and how it has changed kids lives!  Tom, Nancy and Megan, thank you so much for your dedication to raising the technology professionals and leaders of tomorrow.  They are the ones who will change the world.