RULER and Robotics: An Unlikely Yet Winning Combination


For over a decade, The Willows has sent a FIRST LEGO League team comprised of middle school students to one of the league’s qualifying tournaments held each fall. Every year, despite our best efforts and assiduous preparations, our teams have never advanced to the Regional Championships – until this year!

What changed this year? If I told you one of the key components to our team qualifying was related to RULER, the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence approach to developing emotional intelligence that The Willows is implementing, you might at first be surprised by this. How could these seemingly disparate topics possibly intersect in a meaningful way?

Each year the FIRST LEGO League tournaments are organized around a central theme, and this year’s theme was “Into Orbit.” At the tournament, teams of students were judged in four different categories: project, robot design, core values, and robot game. For this year’s project, students were challenged to identify a problem related to long-duration human space exploration, and then to devise a potential solution to said problem.

During the team’s initial brainstorming for solutions, they researched solutions that NASA and other organizations had arrived at over the years to combat astronaut depression and other social-emotional issues that affected their time both in space and back on Earth. They read about software that had been developed that astronauts could use to connect to therapists while in space, though to date the software has not been implemented. This concept reminded our students about the Mood Meter app, which allows users to chart their moods on phones or tablets using the RULER Mood Meter that can be found in all Willows classrooms.


This connection sparked a great idea: what if we develop an app for astronauts that combined some elements from the Mood Meter app with the aforementioned software above, so that astronauts could self-monitor their emotional states plus also connect to mental health professionals on Earth to work through problems. The Robotics team now had a sharp focus for the project that they had to prepare for the tournament.

A detailed description of their app was incorporated into the project presentation that ultimately helped the team win First Place at the Qualifying Tournament on November 10th. “Honestly, it was one of the best feelings in my life,” said eighth grade student Isis Ginyard afterwards. “I never expected us to win after years of disappointment. It was exhilarating!”

In preparation for their next tournament, Isis then took the initiative to spend part of her Thanksgiving break creating a mockup of the app, got feedback from her fellow team members and her FIRST LEGO League coaches (myself and Wendy Amster), and brought a tablet to show to the judges at the Regional Tournament in early December. Unfortunately, the team did not have the same success at this tournament (though only 5 teams out of several dozen advanced to later tournaments in Houston, San Diego, and Uruguay).

We are so proud of our resilient Robotics team, not only for how well they represented the school at both tournaments but especially for incorporating the work we’ve been doing for the last several years with RULER and emotional intelligence. Their efforts this year were a huge testament to the power of our progressive, whole child-centered approach here at The Willows, where topics like robotics programming and emotional intelligence sit side by side in the same project!