Young Minds Walking Tall

Photograph of a group of older children with green facepaint

There are inspiring social entrepreneurs and then there are members of the Walking Lead, a group of teenage robotics engineers from Toronto’s Glen Ames Senior Public School. Indeed, while competing in this year’s FIRST LEGO League (FLL), the team of grade 7 and grade 8 students not only racked up an impressive list of awards for innovative thinking—it also taught the adult world a thing or two about how to beat safety standards, not to mention the costs of playing politics.

Now, don’t confuse FIRST LEGO competitions with kids playing with toy building blocks—unless the kids you imagine are younger versions of Elon Musk building robots to improve the world. The FLL was jointly launched in 1998 by LEGO Group owner Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen and Segway inventor Dean Kamen. The goal was to inspire early student interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education by creating an environment that allows children to engage in playful and meaningful high-tech problem solving while teaching them: (a) that helping others is the foundation of teamwork and (b) that competition and mutual gain are not separate goals.

Each FIRST LEGO League season involves a three-part challenge tied to a real-world problem such as food scarcity or pollution. In addition to being judged on how well they demonstrate league core values, FLL teams design, build, and program autonomous robots and then go head-to-head as they attempt to complete specific tasks on a table-top playing field, racing against the clock as they switch robot components like race-car pit crews. The project side of FLL competitions is all about making the world a better place by applying entrepreneurial thinking to global issues. Teams compete to present the most innovative solution (along with a credible business plan) to a specific problem related to the annual theme.

This year, the FLL theme was hydrodynamics. Members of the Walking Lead were full of project ideas. But as they sat down to make a decision last October, The Toronto Star reported that Glen Ames was among the more than 640 schools and daycares in Ontario that had failed drinking-water lead tests since 2016. And after reading about the issue of lead in the school’s water system, lightning struck the team of teenage innovators—who then set out to engineer a simple but elegant solution to the problem.

For the record, Glen Ames is run by the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), which takes student safety seriously. It regularly tests drinking water stations to ensure they meet government standards. If a TDSB tap fails a test, a manual flushing of its standing water is conducted every morning to replace any tainted water with lead-free water from outside the school plumbing system. If for some reason this doesn’t keep lead under the provincial limit of 10 parts per billion, taps are closed or designated as washing stations only. Critics of the safety standard, however, note that lead levels can build back up quickly following a system flush. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization warns that even small amounts of lead are harmful to developing brains.

Enter the Walking Lead. Named after the mindless zombies on TV’s The Walking Dead, the Glen Ames robotics team invented the Royal Flush, a robotic flushing system that keeps school water relatively lead-free throughout the day. Using LEGO components, the team built a robotic arm designed to trigger a motion sensor on a faucet adapter that transforms manual taps into touchless taps. An algorithm was then used to automate system flushing and program the Royal Flush to run every 30 minutes until temperature readings indicated that water flowing was coming from outside school plumbing. Tests at Glen Ames show the device reduced lead in drinking water that had not yet been flushed by the school from 29 parts per billion to 0.167 parts per billion, well below the government standard.

The initial version of The Royal Flush cost hundreds of dollars. But since schools would need to install multiple devices (one at the end of each water line in their systems), the Walking Lead was determined to make the device more economically viable. Experimenting with different technologies and components has already dropped unit costs to approximately $100, and an even cheaper version is in the works. The end game is to present schools with a product that can keep drinking water virtually lead-free all day for a total output of about $500. And since “royally flushing” wastes less water than manually flushing, the product would eventually pay for itself while saving caretaker time.

As the team website notes: “Our dream is to go global with this invention! Any buildings that are from the 1970s or earlier likely have the same problems we do. There is a mass market of potential to help millions of students from all around the world. Anyone can install the device and all schools can justify the cost, not only because of the health benefits, but because of the cost savings. The future deserves it! Let’s Royally Flush away the lead problem worldwide!”

Thanks to their drive and innovative minds, the Walking Lead secured the right to represent Canada at the FLL internationals after winning their regional qualifying tournament, placing second overall at provincials and landing the coveted champions award at the Ontario Innovation Celebration, which is why Ivey Business School professor Eric Morse, head of the Pierre L. Morrissette Institute for Entrepreneurship, sees the team as an inspirational reminder for adult innovators to be aware of the blinders created by experience and expertise.

“What is great about having our youth look at important social issues is that they are not constrained with notions of how something is supposed to be done or how it has been done in the past,” Morse says. “They can bring a free-thinking approach to a problem that is not encumbered by the assumptions that the rest of us ‘experts’ bring to bear. It means that many of their ideas will not be practical, but it also means that they may bring novel solutions to important problems. I love the quote commonly attributed to either Will Rogers, Mark Twain, or Josh Billings, ‘It ain’t so much the things we don’t know that get us into trouble. It’s the things we know that just ain’t so.’”

The Walking Lead, of course, have not just been making headlines this year for proving we don’t have to settle for just passing safety standards. Indeed, the team played a key role in convincing the TDSB that it should stop playing politics with student development opportunities.

During the 2017 FLL season, which focused on improving the interaction between humans and animals, the Glen Ames robotics club represented Canada at FLL internationals in California, where it placed second in innovation globally for developing a robotic pet feeder designed to help extend the lifespan of dogs. But this year, after securing the opportunity to represent Canadian innovation on the world stage for a second year in a row, members of the Walking Lead found themselves barred from entering the United States. The problem wasn’t the Trump Administration’s controversial travel restrictions aimed at citizens of other nations. The issue was a blanket ban on student trips to the world’s largest economy put in place by the TDSB in response to Trump’s ban.

Assuming school board trustees had thoroughly weighed the pros and cons of its policy, many adults advised TDSB students to accept the ban—despite the fact that no other Canadian school boards had put in place similar restrictions. The Toronto Star wrote: “As difficult as it may be for some students to miss out on learning and networking opportunities south of the border, the TDSB’s position on inclusiveness is not only right, it’s the most important lesson they could ever be taught.”

Not seeing it that way, high school students across Toronto eventually convinced the TDSB governance committee to consider allowing some secondary school students to attend U.S.-based competitions. But such a move would have tossed elementary school kids under the public policy bus, so the Walking Lead launched #Don’tClipOurWings, a public awareness campaign aimed at convincing trustees that “two travel bans don’t make a right,” especially when the result hinders the early development of Canadian innovation, a key pillar of our future economic strength. The best way to counter Donald Trump’s divisive policies, the elementary school entrepreneurs argued, was to showcase Canadian values.

Noting that educational experts have been raising the alarm about an apparent lack of awareness among students and parents of the relevance of STEM disciplines to future education and employment opportunities, the Walking Lead issued a public statement to point out that they regularly go to school early, stay late, and work through lunch to pursue their passion for technology and social entrepreneurship. “We have put hundreds of hours into engineering and programming our competition robots, not to mention researching and developing the Royal Flush, a workable high-tech solution to a real-world problem: the presence of lead in school system drinking water. In other words, with the support of our coaches and parents, we set an example for other young students, many of whom want to join robotics because it is exciting to compete internationally. Our problem isn’t interest in STEM education. It is the apparent lack of school board awareness of the relevance of international exposure to our development as high-tech innovators and entrepreneurs.”

The campaigning, which garnered national media attention, worked. Following a heated debate in which one TDSB trustee admitted that the impact on developmental opportunities was not even considered when Canadian students were banned from engaging with our largest trading partner, the Walking Lead was credited with helping convince a majority of TDSB trustees that they had made a hasty decision that went against the board’s mandate. After the policy was revoked in February, the team scrambled to raise funds to cover a group trip to California, where it scored perfect on social project development and won a major Core Values award for teamwork at FLL internationals in late May.

Walking Lead parents (BIAS DISCLOSURE: My daughter Téa Reed Watson is a team member) attribute much of the Glen Ames robotics club’s success to head coach Luke Martin.

“He has a knack of finding the balance between motivating, guiding, and mentoring a group of diverse kids with an age range that might not naturally be able to focus on a single project for so long,” says Toronto entrepreneur Jimson Bienenstock, owner of the critically acclaimed coffee shop and event space HotBlack. As far as Bienenstock is concerned, his daughter Elsa won the lottery when she joined Martin’s team—which has given her the drive and confidence to take on the world’s challenges. “The kids on the Walking Lead have learned and developed advanced team management skills that I wasn’t taught until my Executive MBA,” he says.

“As an FLL coach, I have learned to let my teams take a path even when it appears to me, at least at first glance, not to be the most efficient solution to a problem because as an adult my perception or vision can be limited by knowledge of what has worked before.”

As a university student studying computer programming, Martin developed a passion for engaging young minds while teaching first aid during a summer job, so he switched his career path to education. At Glen Ames, the 38-year-old teaches information technology while serving as school librarian and IT guru. In addition to robotics, he coaches softball and ultimate frisbee. He runs an annual anti-bullying video contest called Legacy Positive Spaces. He even oversees the student yearbook project.

Simply put, Martin is one of those standout teachers who serves as a role model for students and other educators alike, which is why his robotics club is flooded with hopeful applicants every year. But while the New Brunswick native is credited with the success of his robotics team, he attributes his dedication as a teacher to the inspiration he draws from young, passionate minds.

Ivey Business Journal recently sat down with the TDSB’s winningest FLL coach to explore what the adult world can learn from the elementary school innovators he mentors.

IBJ: So Luke, have you always enjoyed coaching FLL?

LM: The honest answer is not nearly as much as I do today. In fact, over the course of my first fouryears as an FLL coach, I wasn’t having much fun and wasn’t sure how much longer I would continue. At the time, we practiced two or three times a week and focused on the table game. FIRST LEGO League competitions involve building and programming robots that compete against other teams to complete tasks as fast as possible on a table course. It involves switching out components like a race-car pit crew, which is fun to practice, exciting to watch, and clearly teaches skills. The other part of FFL competitions is actually entrepreneurial. Each team must present a solution to a real-world problem based upon a common theme. They must also demonstrate an understanding of FLL core values. That stuff seemed less fun, so my early teams put much less effort into the project and core values components of FLL competitions. Today, I simply could not be any prouder of what my students have accomplished as student entrepreneurs.

IBJ: What changed?

LM: One year, I had a student who was so passionate about focusing the team’s energy on being great at the whole competition. The enthusiasm was infectious, so I cleared my schedule and made FLL one of my top priorities. That student’s team became the first Toronto District School Board FLL team to make it to an international tournament. Long after graduation from Glen Ames, the student in question continued to participate in FLL, giving back year after year as a mentor, ref, judge, and even coach. He is now an engineering student. And after watching the program have that kind of impact on someone at an early age, I could never go back to casual robotics.

IBJ: So, students have taught you the drive that comes with being passionate about excelling at assigned tasks whether they seem fun or not. What else have you learned?

LM: The opportunity to be impressed by working with youth entrepreneurs knows no bounds because kids—or at least kids interested in FLL—tend to rise to the occasion, or surpass it, no matter what goals you set. That said, the goals you set are important. If you expect average results, they will settle for surpassing your average expectation. So, set the bar high and let them go for it. But the bar level shouldn’t be about beating other teams. If you really want to see what student entrepreneurs can do, keep in mind that what they feel like they’re trying to accomplish as a team is important. That’s what makes FLL great.

IBJ: Can you give an example?

LM: Sure. Last year, members of the Glen Ames robotics team set out to improve pet healthcare. Calling themselves the Pawsitive Proportionists, they came second place for innovation at FLL internationals in California after developing a robotic dog feeder designed to extend the lifespan of small dogs by taking human error and human love out of the feeding equation. The final PetPortion prototype was really, really cool, with a high-tech and pet-friendly feeding environment with a sensor-based door and an automated food dispenser that issue precise portions of food based upon a real- time weight assessment. The product even had LED lights to indicate whether a dog’s weight was on target. The success of last year’s team, which garnered corporate sponsors, helped make this year’s squad even more ambitious and competitive. The school’s current robotics team has been winning awards and making headlines for developing a working solution to the problem of lead in school system drinking water. That’s why they named themselves the Walking Lead. If an FLL student buys into the fact that what they are doing is important, that they are one-tenth of something bigger than themselves, it is unbelievable what they can accomplish.

IBJ: Your teams have creative names. Is there a logic to this?

LM: Creating a theme and living by it is important. It makes a team unique and memorable. This year’s team sports zombie costumes because you don’t want to be just another number in the highly competitive FLL league. Like in the marketplace, the more you stand out the better. Standing out also helps team members form a common identity while allowing them to really get behind what brings them together. Having fun is one of the core values promoted by FLL.

IBJ: Why is fun important?

LM: Teenagers sometimes get portrayed as lazy. But they are not. Most adults will not put 250 extra hours of work into something that ultimately, from a material standpoint, offers nothing more than a potential trophy. This year, our team was working long hours to win the right to attend internationals in California for a second year in a row even when Toronto District School Board policy still banned trips to the United States.

IBJ: Your team actually helped change that TDSB policy with a high-profile #Don’tClipOurWings publicity campaign, right?

LM: Yes. I am very proud of that fact, but not as proud as I was watching them train all out hoping to win the right to represent Canadian innovation at a competition that they were not sure they would be allowed to attend. I’m also thrilled with the fact that they helped pave the way for other student teams to travel to U.S.-based competitions as well. We recently ran into a local school softball team that was going to Arkansas and it reminded us of the impact this campaign had, not just for us, but for the community as a whole.

IBJ: OK, so back to why fun is so important?

LM: Anybody’s focus can fade after long hours at work, so I make sure that all the extra time these kids put in before and after school, not to mention at lunch, is mixed with fun challenges, sports breaks, and field trips. Making sure student teams have fun together really promotes genuine teamwork, which is ultimately the best reflection of how your team is progressing. And at the end of the day, while the technical skills they learn in robotics are important, by far the most valuable takeaways are the interpersonal skills and memories they develop. The tech industry is always looking for programmers that can communicate and work well in teams, and there is no better prep for this than the FIRST LEGO League.

IBJ: So, your FLL competitors are programmed to have fun while working on innovative solutions morning, noon, and night.

LM: Right. We have lots of pizza parties.

IBJ: How are your students selected?

LM: Our team is comprised of 10 students from across grade 7 and grade 8, so every year there are typically some students from the previous season who have an experience advantage when it comes to forming a new team. That makes competition for new membership tough. I often wish everyone who expresses an interest could join the club. But the application process is significant enough to weed out kids who aren’t really interested, leaving a decent selection of fresh blood for every new season. We look for leader character in addition to a diverse set of backgrounds, interests, and skills.

IBJ: Is leadership development part of the agenda?

LM: Absolutely. Perhaps the most important thing you can do for young learners is putting them in leadership positions. Developing precise roles for each student on an FLL team is crucial as they will take ownership over one aspect of a team. Giving them a chance to put on workshops for other students or at events should be a top priority. My biggest belief as an educator is that there is no better way to help someone develop skills than having them teach the topic to someone else.

IBJ: How important is team diversity?

LM: Obviously, FLL teams need students who are passionate about STEM education, and I am happy to report interest in STEM education isn’t just a boy thing. But great FLL teams are not just a collection of the best science and math students available. To think outside the box, you need well-rounded students, not to mention students interested in things like music, art, and athletics You would be surprised at how creative FLL teams can be when it comes to presenting innovation solutions before judges.

IBJ: How well is diversity embraced?

LM: Middle school can be very much clique-based. Stereotypes are very prevalent. My best FLL teams have consisted of students from every facet of the school community and by the end of the season they consider each other family. No other experience I’ve had outside of FLL creates this opportunity.

IBJ: Are grade 7 and 8 students good at thinking outside the box?

LM: I’d argue they are often better at it than adults because they aren’t really aware of the box. As an FLL coach, I have learned to let my teams take a path even when it appears to me, at least at first glance, not to be the most efficient solution to a problem because as an adult my perception or vision can be limited by knowledge of what has worked before. So, I wait and see where students take ideas because they often develop into something that works better than the adult world’s box of solutions.

IBJ: Are school grades indicative of a good FLL competitor?

LM: The simple answer is not always. Many of the highly creative students I have encountered can come across as disorganized because they do not follow the patterns most students follow. And some of these kids score lower on tests, especially multiple choice and true or false because they are not wired to see things as binary. And these kids can be great FLL robot builders because they prefer not to follow instructions when building a robot.

IBJ: So, are you a coach or cheerleader?

LM: I see myself as a mutual learner, so a bit of both. Youth generally have fewer filters than adults. They speak the truth instead of toe tipping around sensitive issues. And that means they will happily call you out on anything that may not appear correct. So as a coach, you will get more out of your team if you take the role of a mutual learner instead of seeing yourself as someone with the answers.

IBJ: The kids on your team tell me you are a rollercoaster fanatic. So, what is the best bumpy ride you have experienced?

LM: My favourite rollercoaster ride to date is Maverick at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio. Steel Vengeance, also at Cedar Point, is top of my still-to-do list. I have a trip planned in October.