Galois Engineer Fosters Future Tech Talent with LEGO Robotics Competition

Galois is full of fascinating people with remarkable stories. In addition to being research engineers building tools for space exploration, mathematicians writing proofs to secure some of the world’s most valuable data, and spreadsheet wizards managing complex projects, we are musicians and artists, mountaineers and spelunkers, philosophers and flower farmers. Every once in a while, we like to stop and highlight some of the people that make Galois so special. 

Today we spotlight one of our outstanding research engineers, Rand Whillock, who has been volunteering as a judge, coach, and organizer for FIRST LEGO League robotics competitions in Minneapolis and across Minnesota for 26 years.

It all started back in 1997 when a coworker talked Rand into helping out as a judge for a “funny robot competition.” Little did he know, the event would mark the beginning of a lifelong passion for mentoring the next generation of technological innovators. 

When Rand showed up to that first event, he found a room full of kids designing, building, and programming LEGO robots. Teams ran their creations through timed obstacle courses where they were given points based on tasks the robots were able to perform, but the contest wasn’t just about building robots and making them run. The young competitors were also required to present their designs to a panel of discerning judges, who would grill them with questions about their strategy. Rand was blown away.

“I ran home and said to my 4th-grade daughter, ‘We are doing this,’” Rand said. “Then I went to our middle school PTA and they said, ‘OK, we’ll give you students.’”

By the following year, Rand and his wife were coaching three teams of students, teaching and helping them design, build, code, and test their robots to prepare for the annual competitions.  

Teaching Kids to Code

FIRST LEGO League, the international organization that hosts the competitions, announces a new obstacle course design every August with competitions scheduled for late in the year. Teams have three to four months to build and test their robots to prepare for the course. For many of the middle schoolers who get involved with LEGO Robotics competitions, it’s their first experience coding.

“It’s a fabulous way to learn to code,” said Rand. “It can be kind of boring sitting at a computer screen and going, ‘Oh look, I moved the cursor!’ When you are coding a robot, instead it’s, ‘Wow, I made it move!’ or, ‘Whoops, the robot turned right when I wanted it to turn left. I know how to change that!’ It’s wonderful, tangible feedback that engages the kids and gets them thinking about real-world machines and applications.”

Rand and his fellow coaches start simple. First, they equip the robots with an ultra-sonic sensor that allows them to sense and avoid walls and other obstacles. Next, they teach the kids to write a program that instructs the robot to move forward, use the sensor to check for obstacles, and turn in a new direction whenever it senses something in front of it.

“I tell the kids, ‘Hey, you just built a Roomba! This is what they do.’ It’s a good connection to real-world application programming.”

Soon they move on to more complicated—and more interesting—applications: autonomous navigation through obstacle courses, moving or manipulating objects, recognizing specific colors and reacting appropriately to solve puzzles, and more. Every year’s competition has a different theme, from natural disasters to space exploration. Tasks and “missions” are themed accordingly, and students get to apply their newfound programming skills to overcome challenge after challenge.

“I make it clear to the kids that my goal is not to turn them into engineers,” Rand said. “We just want them familiar and comfortable with the technology so that they know that being an engineer is an option. … Still, it’s really cool when it clicks; when you see the kids find their thing.”

Clearly, the work has made a mark on many. Every once in a while, a parent will approach Rand and tell him, “My child was on your LEGO League team, and now he’s a mechanical engineer. He attributes that to you.” 

Community Impact

All told, Rand has introduced more than a thousand students to coding through LEGO robotics clubs. He’s also managed to rope in more than a few colleagues. Rand reckons that more than half of Galois’s Minneapolis employees have been involved, whether as coaches, judges, or even students. His own daughter, who competed in her first LEGO robotics tournament in the 4th grade, is now a medical doctor. Last January, she came back to judge a tournament.

Rand and his wife continued coaching their kids’ LEGO League teams right up until they aged out of the program. But they weren’t done yet. Next, Rand started working with the Minneapolis school system, serving as a volunteer coach for kids in inner-city schools. These days, he’s working with LEGO League state-wide, helping organize tournaments, serving as head judge, and mentoring teams. 

Over the course of his journey, Rand has poured an enormous amount of time and energy into empowering and inspiring the next generation: Thousands of hours spent teaching kids the fundamentals of coding, problem-solving, and public speaking; thousands of miles traveled and much of his free time spent sharing a fraction of his joy for the strange magic of math and robots and code. 

Yet the impact of those decades of volunteering has been immense, a fact made clear by the moments that have etched themselves into Rand’s memory.

There was the girl from an inner-city school in Minneapolis who showed exceptional ability in programming and fixing her team’s robots. When her father finally saw her in action at the tournament, he was so impressed that he turned to Rand and said, “This is amazing. I never knew that she could do this!” 

The man decided on the spot to enroll his daughter in a technology-focused magnet school.

Then there was the team of grade schoolers who did so well that they nearly won the state championship. When, later that year, the school board held public hearings to decide whether to close their school, two of the girls from the LEGO League team stood up to speak, wowing the crowd with their eloquence and the clarity of their arguments. 

“Where did they learn to do that?” asked one of their teachers.

“I know exactly where,” Rand’s wife answered. “That’s exactly what they do in LEGO League in front of the judges. They nailed it!”

“It’s moments like that that make it all worth it,” said Rand.