In October and November of this year, Rackspace invested in spinning up several FIRST Lego League (FLL) teams in the New River Valley this fall. Working with the non-profit New River Robotics and local FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) group the Tuxedo Pandas, we spun up two FLL teams at Blacksburg Middle School, two at Christiansburg Middle School and two home school group teams. Other NRV area FLL teams and events were additionally funded by the Roanoke Blacksburg Technology Council (RBTC) and overseen by the Roanoke Blacksburg FLL (rbfll.org).
One of these home school groups, Rackspace was personally involved with. I stepped in as “Coach Tweeks” and helped start the “Fire Breathing Rubber Duckies“— mainly because my own 11yr old daughter was one of the prospective team members. The FBRDs (as we became known) ended up being comprised of nine 9-11yr old home school kids from within Blacksburg.
The FLL Big Picture:
FIRST Lego League is the robotics competition for middle schoolers, run by the FIRST organization, started by Segway inventor Dean Kamen. FIRST stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, and is one of the leading world wide STEM organizations.
FIRST Lego League’s primary goal is to offer “a powerful program that engages children in playful and meaningful learning while helping them discover the fun in science and technology through the FIRST LEGO League experience.”  The FLL program is set up to equip a small team of 9-11 and 12-14 year olds to build their technical and team cooperative skills. They do this through an autonomous robot competition, a topical research project as well as a CORE values component that focuses on Gracious Professionalism and having fun.
The competitive season is 2-3 months long and is organized around one to two dozen (or more) team meetings. At these meetings robotic and project strategies are formed, mechanical and programming problems defined, and the kids overcome countless challenges and have a ton of fun, learning as they go. These efforts build up to a regional competition with a dozen or so teams all competing against each other, with the winners moving on to state and nationals. At the weekly workshop meetings, the parents are asked to encourage and provide direction, but not do any of the work or micromanage what the kids do.
While the kids are drawn into FLL with the simple fun goal of programming robots, the real lessons learned are much more broad and impactful. As some of the parents (who are themselves involved in this informal after school activity) commented, “I was really surprised that the kids are learning many diverse and valuable life lessons through FLL. I mean you have the obvious lessons of how to work effectively on a team, communication, etc… but you also have some very deep life lessons around reaching consensus in a group, separating out one’s personal bias when searching for “the best solution”, project management skills, time management skills, working within deadlines, inclusion, graciousness, professionalism and tons more. The whole experience was just so impressive and life changing for my child. You just don’t get this depth of experience from school alone. I highly recommend it for anyone with kids old enough to join.”
Sponsoring FLL: What Can FLL/STEM Involvement Do For Your Company?
The FIRST and FLL programs do so much for Rackspace, Racksburg, Rackers, and our community. They advance our corporate STEM support goals, pour STEM opportunities into our community, and grow our area’s technical and future job and entrepreneurial capacity. They also give our employees (we call “Rackers”) a way to get plugged in and give back, either as a Rackers with a middle school aged child, or as a Racker who just wants to be involved their community. Reaching outside our own walls with STEM outreach like this does two things for Rackspace — It increases employee engagement and increases the technical attractiveness on the recruiting side.
The corporate studies in this area tell the story. Community outreach events that involve your people in actually doing something worthwhile for the community increases employee engagement. When people feel like they’re a part of an organization that has noble intentions and leads the community in such endeavors, these investments increase employee engagement and bonds between employees and that organization, leading to better employee retention.  
Not only does giving back in the community boost engagement and retention, but STEM programs (specifically) helps tech companies attract more seasoned IT/DevOps professionals who have kids and families away from big IT-centric cities. “70 percent of all parents [desire] hands-on STEM learning [programs]” …”Relying on K-12 schools alone is not working.” . The fact is STEM professional moms and dads look for opportunities where they can expose and plug their kids into more science and technology events. The more community leadership roles like this we engage in within our community, the more seasoned talent we can attract to our awesome little techno-town.
The 2015 “Trash Trek” Theme:
This year FLL season’s theme was “Trash Trek” and was focused on ways we can all be more responsible with our trash, refuse, and recycling. The FBRDs had to not only accomplish several trash related robotic missions like demolition clean up, trash truck transportation, plastic-bag disposal, etc.; they also had to do a research project and activity to make a real difference in their community by addressing some sort of trash/recycling related problem.
The FBRDs research project was one of what to do with greasy pizza boxes, which traditionally can not be recycled due to the grease saturated cardboard gumming up the works and ruining entire batches of cardboard. Kids are encouraged to consult with industry experts, and they did so in this case.
The real surprise though was when they found that, after talking to recycling experts in our area, our new recycling center’s Single Stream recycling service now had the needed technology to accept greasy pizza boxes. The recycling experts commented, “one of our biggest problems now [with single stream recycling] is getting the word out and educating the public that we can now accept greasy pizza boxes in the recycling system, so people no longer need to put them in the trash and send them to the landfill.” After the FBRDs discovered this, they quickly came up with the idea of a pizza box education campaign to educate the public about this new change. The FBRDs got with two local pizza vendors and had “sticker parties” putting our team’s custom designed pizza box sticker onto over 200 pizza boxes in Blacksburg, with more planned in the future.
On Saturday November 7th, they met with 10-12 other FLL teams, going head to head in the robotic competition and competing in the other research project and CORE values categories.
The Fire Breathing Rubber Duckies took 2nd place within their division – a huge success considering they were a rookie team. The Duckies also took the “best Robot Design” award.. another huge honor that really illustrated how well the kids performed.
All the kids (and parents) really learned a lot, and all agree that this is a program that represents the very best STEM has to offer. FLL is a program that is not only worthwhile for the kids and community, but for our company to continue being involved with for years to come.
More photos of the event available here.