First Lego League Promotes Accessibility Awareness

RESNA 28th Annual Conference - Atlanta, Georgia

Rehabilitation Engineering Program, University of Michigan

Jacqueline Neal, BSE


In order to educate the general population about inaccessibility and the benefits of assistive technology, the First Robotics League issued a project entitled “No Limits.” This project was geared for students across the country ages 9-14 and included assessing an area in the community, interviewing a person with a physical disability, giving a presentation, and building a robot. Each team was designed and built a robot made of LEGO blocks that performs the following activities: place a compact disk (cd) in a cd case, pick up a pair of glasses, put food on a plate, push chairs in to a table, drive up a set of stairs, put balls in a basketball net, open a gate, feed a pet, and read a bus sign, all within 2.5 minutes, using LEGO® MINDSTORMS™ Robotics Invention System™ to do the programming.

Keywords: Education, LEGO, Robotics


As of the 2000 U.S. census, 19.3% of the population over the age of 5 has some type of disability. Yet, buildings and public areas continue to be inaccessible, and many people are unaware of the physical barriers that are imposed upon those with disabilities (1). The FIRST LEGO League attempted to begin introduce accessibility to students of a young age with the goal to increase awareness across the United States. “ The FIRST LEGO League (FLL), considered the "little league" of the FIRST Robotics Competition, is the result of a partnership between FIRST and the LEGO Company. FLL extends the FIRST concept of inspiring and celebrating science and technology to children aged 9 through 14, using real-world context and hands-on experimentation (2).” With the help of LEGO® MINDSTORMS™ Robotics Invention System™ technology, young participants built a robot and competed in a robotics event specially designed for their age group. Using LEGO bricks and other elements such as sensors, motors, and gears, teams gained hands-on experience in rehabilitation engineering and computer programming principles as they constructed and programmed their robots. Approximately 400 teams participated in the league in 2003, which included about 4,000 kids across the country (2). Providing information about assistive technology has the potential to reach exponential effects when these children share what they have learned with family, friends, and classmates.


The objective of the theme for the FIRST LEGO League competition was to increase awareness about disability and accessibility by teaching youth between the ages of 9 and 14 about assistive technology, engineering principles, and computer programming principles.


The FIRST LEGO League (FLL) is a national robotics competition for students between the ages of 9 and 14. The students use LEGO blocks and computer programming to build robots, which are used to perform specific tasks and compete against other teams’ robots. Teams of 7-10 students, mentored by engineers and computer programmers, may enter the competition annually. This year, the league had a relevant theme: No Limits. The 2004 FLL Challenge was to examine the surrounding community to determine which areas were inaccessible, then explore how technology and human thought can work together to create equal access for all people. Teams met on a weekly basis for 3-4 hours at a time to complete the project. This author, a rehabilitation engineering graduate student, mentored a team from southeastern Michigan.

The first task of the project was to assess an area within the team’s community for accessibility problems. Many students assessed their schools with the help of a mentor and collected data regarding distances, stairwells, heights of drinking fountains and bookshelves, etc.

Following the assessment, each team interviewed a person with a physical disability to learn about the difficulties of trying to be independent. Students asked questions regarding the person’s disability itself, as well as questions regarding frustration within the area that was initially assessed for accessibility.

Using information from the evaluation and the interview, each team devised changes for the chosen area. These changes included making doorways wider, lowering objects, etc. Based on the suggestions from the interview and discussions with their mentors, students proposed ideas for assistive technology that could be used.

The teams presented their ideas, along with background information, to their science class at school to further spread the awareness of problems with accessibility and the solutions that assistive technology can offer.

Finally, the teams began building robots using only LEGO blocks, light sensors, rotational sensors, and a computer program called LEGO® MINDSTORMS™ Robotics Invention System™. Each FLL team built and programmed a robot that addressed the specific needs of people who face physical challenges in today's society. Each member of the group had a main task to complete, similar to a professional design team. Some members worked on the programming aspect of the robot, others worked on building a functional product while other members functioned as management. The robot was built to compete against other robots in fulfilling the following tasks: place a cd in a cd case, pick up a pair of glasses, put food on a plate, push chairs in to a table, drive up a set of stairs, put balls in a basketball net, and open a gate, feed a pet, and read a bus sign. These activities were to be completed within a standardized work area, as can be seen in figure 1.

Figure 1: Standardized work area (2). The letters correspond to specific missions: A: placing cd in a cd case; B: putting balls in a basketball net; C: driving up a set of stairs; D: feeding the pets; E: opening a gate; F: stopping at a specific bus sign; G: pushing chairs into a table; H: putting food on the table; I: picking up a pair of glasses. (Click image for larger view)
This diagram shows the standardized work area for the robotics competition and labels each task area with letters A-I.

No specific design guidelines were provided for the teams so that the students used creativity to design unique robots. For example, the southeastern Michigan team prepared a unique clip that was placed on the front of the robot to grab a pair of glasses. Practice trials were run with the robot, and modifications were made until the teams felt comfortable with their robots’ performances.

In the late fall, local competitions within the league began. These competitions consisted of each team giving a presentation to a panel of judges similar to the presentation that the teams gave to their classes, and 3 trials of 2.5 minutes each. During these trials, each team’s robot attempted to complete as many activities successfully as possible within the allotted time. The panel of judges witnessed the trials and assigned point values to each of the tasks. At the end of the competition, the teams were ranked in order of total points earned. Those teams that received superior point values were able to compete in a state competition. The winners of the state competition then moved on to a national competition.


This program offers an excellent tool to increase the knowledge and interest of children in engineering fields, assistive technology, and disability. Following the competition in 2003, Brandeis University completed a study assessing the impacts of the FIRST LEGO League. Each student and mentor participating in the league was given a survey, and then followed up with 15 minute phone conversations. Based on the 2003 survey results, team mentors reported that 81% of students increased their interest in science and technology. Furthermore, 95% of the students reported that they increased their acceptance of others. These positive results are predicted for the 2004 project as well (3). As a rehabilitation engineer, this author feels that the FIRST LEGO League has made an important step in improving today’s society by increasing both students’ awareness of assistive technology, and their community’s awareness. However, the following critiques were made: more ATPs should be involved to give students a broad view of the clinical side of assistive technology, and the project should offer a more specific problem to the student. For example, the students should be asked to build a mobile device for a wheel chair that does some of the specified missions, instead of being asked to build a device that is virtually unusable by and actual person with a physical disability.


  1. Disability Status: 2000- Census 2000 Brief. United States Census Bureau. Retrieved January 13, 2005, from
  2. FIRST LEGO League. Retrieved January 13, 2005, from
  3. Evaluation of the FIRST LEGO League. 2004. Retrieved January 13, 2005 from Brandeis University Center for Youth and Communities, Heller School for Public Policy and Management,

Jacqueline Neal, BSE
Rehabilitation Engineering Program, University of Michigan
1500 East Medical Center Drive
University Hospital 1C335
Ann Arbor, MI 48109
(734) 936-7170