Engineering Teamwork: La Jolla middle school students takes top robotics prize at First LEGO League

Team Architech from Muirlands Middle School are this year’s First LEGO League Spring Showdown winners.

Several La Jolla students are celebrating a big win after taking home first place at the First LEGO League (FLL) Spring Showdown on March 8 at LEGOLAND in Carlsbad. Team Architech, comprised of eight seventh-grade students from Muirlands Middle School, took the top spot in the regional competition after many months of training and practice.

They say they’re looking toward the next challenge.

“Robotics is a discipline that combines elements of engineering and computer science,” explained Francesco Grilli, one of Team Architech’s two coaches, along with Neal Palmer (and both parents of team members). “Its main purpose is the design and control of robots, or devices capable of performing activities that would normally require human labor.”

The FLL Spring Showdown is open to fourth- to eighth-grade students, and is a mix of school-affiliated and “garage” teams. Team Architech is a garage team that began when its members were fifth-graders at Torrey Pines Elementary. They’ve trained and competed together the last three years, winning several other trophies in similar competitions, according to Grilli.

This is the second consecutive year Architech has taken first prize in the Spring Showdown, which this year hosted 47 other teams.

To prepare for the competition, Architech trained at Palmer’s house “in the living room, which is much warmer than a garage,” Grilli joked. They met twice a week for two- to three-hour sessions, 10 months a year.

As the competition entails a series of tasks to be completed by the robot in a maximum amount of time of two minutes and 30 seconds, Grilli said the students must devise a strategy to complete as many tasks as possible in the least amount of time and in the most reliable way, using a robot they have to design and program from scratch.

Team Architect coaches Francesco Grilli and Neal Palmer

The robot itself is constructed from elements in LEGO sets, with up to four motors and four sensors.

“The robot’s core, a ‘brick,’ is programmed with an object-oriented programming language that team members must learn,” Grilli explained. “The robot cannot be remote-controlled during the competition; it needs to be programmed in advance to handle all possible situations, and adds to the complexity of the team’s training.”

Team Architech members — Elena Grilli, Mira Lehman, Sarah Lehman, Nathaniel Muus, Kyle Palmer, Leo Souza, Emma Weibel and Grant Williams — are mentored by local sophomore Madalyn Nguyen, who has competed three times at the FLL Robotics World Championship and also mentors teams in Paraguay and Africa.

For Sarah Lehman, robotics is about teamwork, “which I used to think was easy, but it is definitely not,” she told La Jolla Light. “Though I do have to get up at inconvenient hours, and the team sometimes quarrels, participation taught me a lot about building and coding. In the end, of course, the trophies are a wonderful award, but competition day teaches me a lot about working in a group.”

Her sister and teammate Mira Lehman agreed: “The best part is collaborating as a team to successfully, efficiently and reliably accomplish missions in a way that impresses everyone on the team. We all understand that we each have different skill sets that are individually invaluable to get where we are.”

Nathaniel Muus concurred: “I enjoy that we get to work together in a group to learn and create new things.”

The theme of collaboration is a strong one. For Katherine Williams, mother to Architech member Grant: “It has been so rewarding to watch these children from highly diverse backgrounds come together as a cohesive team and overcome the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) challenges. The students are most importantly learning to persevere despite experiencing losses, communicate effectively with each other, cope with big emotions from their successes and failures, and above all to enjoy the ride. These are the critical skills that will help them develop into strong and compassionate leaders.”

The skills behind collaboration and communication, along with the technological knowledge required to carry out the tasks, are what makes robotics a future-focused activity.

“In order to become good at designing and programming robots,” Coach Grilli claimed, “the kids on the team had to learn how to solve complex problems in a very efficient and reliable way, and this skill will surely help them in life, regardless of the nature of their future endeavors.”

For the students, winning the FLL Spring Showdown “felt awesome,” Muus said. “I loved the feeling of accomplishing a huge challenge, and we earned more points than we expected.”

Mira Lehman added: “It was so exhilarating to wait with baited breath to see who had the highest score! The most important, though, was to be able to run down the stage together, as a team.”

Sarah Lehman agreed: “All of the struggling along the way is totally worth it.”

The competition, attended by family members, team mentors and Legoland visitors, is held yearly on two consecutive days. The Team Architech party to celebrate its win was postponed due to the coronavirus crisis, but will be rescheduled, and its members will now continue on to compete in an autumn competition to determine the teams for the World Championship.

Want to know more? Muirlands Middle School will provide information on its official team to students interested in robotics during its orientation in August. Families who want to organize a “garage” team can find information at