My Day as a FIRST LEGO League Referee

[Editor’s note: At Adafruit we’re having some FIRST robotics participants post up on Adafruit, Today’s is from Harry – here’s a quick note about him ” I’m 17 years old, have been involved in FIRST LEGO League in various ways for 8 years. I’m currently a junior in college majoring in Physics, but will be transferring to a different school in the fall to pursue a degree in Electrical Engineering. In my spare time I work on various Open Hardware projects, which can be found at]

Early on a Saturday morning (5:40 AM to be exact) a small group of dedicated volunteers, including me, arrived at a university’s field house. We moved quickly, setting up breakfast, making coffee, triple-checking our preparations, and taking a collective deep breath. We knew that in an hour, over 500 middle school students and their mentors would arrive, and that we’d be running on adrenaline for the next 12 hours. Such is the life of an inner-circle FIRST LEGO League event volunteer.

What a crowd! Above, teams compete while other teams are queued.

FIRST LEGO League is an international robotics competition for 9-14 year olds run by the organization founded by inventor Dean Kamen, of insulin pump and Segway fame. Teams of students build and program LEGO autonomous robots that compete on a standardized 4’ x 8’ table covered with LEGO field models. Since the theme of the competition this year was food safety, a typical mission would be for the robot to retrieve a truck filled with groceries, allowing the students to remove the groceries, load them onto their robot, and deliver them to a kitchen table. Teams have 2.5 minutes to rack up points completing as many tasks as possible, in any order. During the season, the teams also research a topic related to the year’s theme, and create a 5-minute presentation to discuss their results. Teams in the USA bring their robots and presentations to state and regional competitions in an effort to advance, either to the international World Festival held in St. Louis, or one of the FLL Open tournaments.

Teams who win awards also receive these LEGO trophies.

At our state tournament, judging started at around 7:30.  Things were pretty quiet while the teams were in judging, but then at 11:30, everything ramped back up again. The 54 teams paraded into the main competition room, an indoor gym, complete with bleachers. Meanwhile, our group of referees huddled, going over last minute rule clarifications and making sure that any first-time referees were matched with veterans. We all wore the classic referee zebra shirts and carried pencils, clipboards, and scoring sheets. Some of us also wore silly hats to humanize us for the kids; I dislike goofy hats, so donned a top hat. At noon, the main spectator event began, a mass of music, excited shrieking students, and robots. At a given instant four teams would be on the clock, the kids jumping out of their seats as the robot worked, or sitting in crushed defeat when it didn’t. Meanwhile, at the other two tables, the referees scored the field with the teams, filling out checkboxes on a score sheet, getting them verified by the team, sending them to the scorekeepers, getting the current team out, resetting the field, and bringing the new team in. All in about 4 minutes. When my table was active, I had to keep a kindly but vigilant eye on the teams and their robots and enforce the robot game’s rules. These rules included: penalizing teams for touching the robot if it was anywhere but home base; noting field damage caused by errant robots; and correcting field damage caused by overexcited children; among many others.

Two members of a team preparing their robot.
Another team's robot in motion. Here, the green germ dispenser (that the robot is driving towards) has been actuated.
Me filling out a scoresheet with a team.

This whole cycle repeated until each of the teams had been run through 3 times, which took around 4 hours. By this point, I’d been on my feet on concrete for about 10 hours. We broke down all of the tables, packed them away, and sat in the bleachers to watch the final awards ceremony. Then, as teams filed out of the building, we finished cleaning up. Finally, at 6:00, we shuffled out of the building, exhausted but happy that we’d pulled off another tournament.

Kipp Bradford talks about his childhood LEGO projects at closing ceremonies.

Adafruit publishes a wide range of writing and video content, including interviews and reporting on the maker market and the wider technology world. Our standards page is intended as a guide to best practices that Adafruit uses, as well as an outline of the ethical standards Adafruit aspires to. While Adafruit is not an independent journalistic institution, Adafruit strives to be a fair, informative, and positive voice within the community – check it out here:

Join Adafruit on Mastodon

Adafruit is on Mastodon, join in!

Stop breadboarding and soldering – start making immediately! Adafruit’s Circuit Playground is jam-packed with LEDs, sensors, buttons, alligator clip pads and more. Build projects with Circuit Playground in a few minutes with the drag-and-drop MakeCode programming site, learn computer science using the CS Discoveries class on, jump into CircuitPython to learn Python and hardware together, TinyGO, or even use the Arduino IDE. Circuit Playground Express is the newest and best Circuit Playground board, with support for CircuitPython, MakeCode, and Arduino. It has a powerful processor, 10 NeoPixels, mini speaker, InfraRed receive and transmit, two buttons, a switch, 14 alligator clip pads, and lots of sensors: capacitive touch, IR proximity, temperature, light, motion and sound. A whole wide world of electronics and coding is waiting for you, and it fits in the palm of your hand.

Have an amazing project to share? The Electronics Show and Tell is every Wednesday at 7pm ET! To join, head over to YouTube and check out the show’s live chat – we’ll post the link there.

Join us every Wednesday night at 8pm ET for Ask an Engineer!

Join over 36,000+ makers on Adafruit’s Discord channels and be part of the community!

CircuitPython – The easiest way to program microcontrollers –

Maker Business — “Packaging” chips in the US

Wearables — Enclosures help fight body humidity in costumes

Electronics — Transformers: More than meets the eye!

Python for Microcontrollers — Python on Microcontrollers Newsletter: Silicon Labs introduces CircuitPython support, and more! #CircuitPython #Python #micropython @ThePSF @Raspberry_Pi

Adafruit IoT Monthly — Guardian Robot, Weather-wise Umbrella Stand, and more!

Microsoft MakeCode — MakeCode Thank You!

EYE on NPI — Maxim’s Himalaya uSLIC Step-Down Power Module #EyeOnNPI @maximintegrated @digikey

New Products – Adafruit Industries – Makers, hackers, artists, designers and engineers! — #NewProds 7/19/23 Feat. Adafruit Matrix Portal S3 CircuitPython Powered Internet Display!

Get the only spam-free daily newsletter about wearables, running a "maker business", electronic tips and more! Subscribe at !


  1. Sounds like you are off to a great start! FIRST is way more fun than anything occurring at a school should be. 😉

    I’ve been judging at Colorado qualifiers and state for several years, and always had a blast. I don’t have kids, but I value the extracurricular science and technology stuff I did in school and enjoy giving back.

    For anyone reading this, I recommend jumping in and giving it a try! You can referee like Harry, or you can judge the three other categories, Technical (review the robot and their programs), Presentation (teams must present on a science topic in the theme of the event) and Core Values/Teamwork (teams must complete a teamwork challenge, and are evaluated on how they work as a group).

    Judging just takes one day, so it isn’t a huge commitment if you want to give it a try. If you love it and have time, you can always coach a team, or be a team mentor.

    Look forward to hearing more experiences – programs like these are crucial to the future of science and technology, and its great to see them getting more attention.

  2. Awesome stuff, Harry! Welcome to the blog!

  3. Adafruit Support

    I’ll second what Sam said about volunteering. There is also a great need for coaches and mentors. Check with the STEM faculty at your local elementary and/or middle schools. Our program locally has grown from 3 teams to 10 teams in the past three years, and there is a waiting list long enough to fill 3 more teams – if only we had the coaches!

  4. I’ll be judging my first FLL tournament in a couple of weeks… can’t wait! Thanks for the post.

  5. @Sam: Definitely, and another note is that all of those categories are equally important when teams are being considered for the Champion’s Award, which advances them to the next tournament. The person who wins Robot Performance may not necessarily win Champion’s.

    @John: Thank you, it’s great to be here!

    @Adafruit Support: Not just at public/private schools, either! The huge growth lately has been from private “non-traditional educators,” including homeschoolers, Boy/Girl Scout groups, 4H clubs, and even just community groups run by a bunch of friends whose individual schools don’t have the budget. I will say that the student/coach ratio is very high here as well, though.

    @Anne: Have fun! It’s a blast. What category?

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.