I judged my first FLL regional competition in Germany January this year in Munich for last season’s World Class: Learning Unleashed theme. I was assigned to be a part of the teamwork jury, where our teamwork activity was a charades game, which fit my language skills well because it was mostly observing and then asking a few questions in German at the end. It was a lot of fun to get to know the teams better, and learning how they would explain FIRST and gracious professionalism to their communities. The teams seemed to have been caught off guard if I asked about gracious professionalism, which was very different from my experience in FRC, though I can’t recall if I had asked teams about gracious professionalism when I judged FLL in the USA. When it came down to choosing a team for the Judge’s Award, I noticed one team was exhibiting exactly what I feel is gracious professionalism at the FRC level. I was walking around the practice tables to observe the teams testing their robots for the game, and while most of the teams were focused on getting their time on the table to practice and mostly interacting only with their team members and coaches, there was one team that I saw always waiting patiently for their turn, asking when the could have a turn, letting other teams have a go when they needed a short break on the table to make some changes, and, on top of all of that, resetting all the Lego tasks for other teams while they were waiting! I quickly went to tell the other judges what I saw, and they all agreed that this team was the perfect choice for the Judge’s Award and they gave me the honor to announce this award during the awards ceremony.
The Central European FLL finale was also held in Munich last season, and I volunteered as a teamwork judge there as well. It was a very different experience to be a judge at the finale. Because the Central Europe FLL Division consists of teams from several different countries, the finale is held in English, whereas the regional events seem to be typically run in the national language. It felt very different to have the teamwork sessions, some even with the same teams I had seen in the Munich regional competition, and to be able to get to know the teams in their foreign language, as opposed to in my foreign language. In the teamwork sessions, the teams are judged on whether every team member participates or if only a few of the team members are speaking. This can be very challenging in a foreign language when the age gap among the team members is large. I vividly remember one German team with several older boys, about 12-13 years old, with one 9-year-old on the team who sat by quietly while his teammates told us, the judges, about their team, but at one point the youngest boy suddenly opens his mouth and says “Ich sage nichts nur weil ich die Sprache nicht kenne (I am not saying anything only because I don’t know the language).” He really wanted to participate but hadn’t learned enough English yet, but his extra courage to speak up to explain this to us definitely left a good impression on us. Of course we tell the teams at the beginning that the older kids can translate to and from the younger kids, though sometime we have to continue to remind them and encourage them so the younger members can participate. It was really interesting to see this extra challenge of teamwork and how team address it and overcome it, something I never had come across judging FLL in the USA.
I was asked by one of the organizers at one of the tournaments what differences I noticed about my experiences in Germany and in the USA. On the side of the teams and participants, I can happily say that I notice the same inspiring FIRST atmosphere, with not only students always coming up with surprising and creative ideas related to the robot and research projects, but also participants all working together helping each other, cheering for other teams, making new friends, and having fun. These are the reasons I volunteer to judge at FIRST tournaments. In both countries, there are lots of veteran teams who have done FIRST before and really get it, and there are also new teams just discovering the joys of robotics and FIRST. I think the students experience FIRST similarly no matter what country they are in, with perhaps this extra challenge of the language. The difference that I do notice here in Europe, however, is in the volunteer and mentor support. There is a really strong FIRST community in California, especially in Silicon Valley where I come from, so I was used to always meeting other judges and volunteers with extensive FIRST experience and who really understood that the competition were about more than just the robots. In Germany, most of the other volunteers I meet are first time volunteers, even though FLL started in Germany only two year after the first FLL in the USA. From just one day at a tournament, sometimes I wonder whether the volunteers are able to fully observe all of these special aspects of FIRST and get hooked enough to return. The retuning adult volunteer base seems small enough that after only a year after getting involved in FIRST on this side of the world, I know a good proportion of the adult FIRST fans in Central Europe.
On a personal note, there is a big difference I notice for myself being a judge here in Germany compared to in the USA, and that is the language experience. As a long-time FRC mentor and coach of an all-girls team, I have lots of experience helping encourage young women to be confident in speaking to different types of audiences. I used to think that selling oneself, negotiating, and asking for information were speaking skills one could practice and eventually learn, and once one gained the confidence to do this with these different types of audiences then the battle was won. I thought that as a professional female scientist and engineer, I had achieved these skills and mentor other young women to help them in these skills. My viewpoint on this changed after my first time judging the FLL tournament in Munich, and sitting in front of a dozen teams of teenagers, having to question then in my foreign language/their mother tongue, and then having to stand in front of over 100 people in the audience and use this language again to answer questions from the MC and give out the Judge’s Award. Though I’ve done these things dozens of times in the USA and am fairly comfortable with public speaking in my mother tongue of English, I don’t think I had been so nervous to speak in front of people since I was a teenager myself. That’s when I realized how it probably is for many of the young students participating in FIRST for the first time, maybe especially for some of the young women that I have mentored, when they don’t know all of the technical (and non-technical) vocabulary, and as a result are not entirely confident in communicating and are scared to speak up. Somehow I still managed to get through the judging sessions and give speeches during the awards ceremony in front of so many people, all in a language that is still new to me. I realized that even though I am not always the best and most confident public speaker, I can still try to help other succeed in these skills by sharing my experiences. So what helped me, and what would I advise then to others? Practice, practice, practice. Try to make improvements. Ask for help. And practice some more. In my first judging experience in Germany, I wrote out my speech to give out the Judge’s Award and had one of the other judges that was German correct it for grammar and understandability, and I read my speech from the paper. And after some time, improvements are bound to be noticed. Last month I traveled to Nuremberg, Germany to be a research presentation judge for Trash Trek this season, and I was able to give out two awards without having to read my speeches from a paper. I was still pretty nervous, but I think it was improvement from last year.
Not only does every new FIRST experience I have continue to impress and inspire me, but even as a mentor, coach, and judge, do I continue to learn something new and grow from each new FIRST experience. I am wishing all of the readers of FIRST Ladies a fun and successful FIRST season, and I hope that the learning for you all will also continue even after your time in your current FIRST experience ends.
This blog was written by Genny Pang. If you are interested in blogging for FIRST Ladies, click here to sign up on the schedule.