Arcadia Unified Middle Schoolers Advance to Prestigious International Robotics Championship

by AUSD Digital Communications Interns Chloe Wong and Alysia Shang
The Code Breakers and their Champion Finalist trophy.

The Code Breakers and their Champion Finalist trophy. 

From left to right: Brandon Liu, Ethan Chen, Aidan Tan, Jiaxuan (Ocean) Xu.


Four middle school students from the Arcadia Unified School District—collectively known as the Code Breakers—have been recognized as Co-Champions of the California Southern FIRST LEGO League (FLL) Championship. Dana Middle School 7th-grader Brandon Liu and Foothills Middle School 8th-graders Ethan Chen, Aidan Tan, and Jiaxuan (Ocean) Xu will soon travel to Houston to compete in the 2024 FLL World Championship on April 16 through 20 and will next head to Australia for the FLL Asian Pacific Open in July. Team Code Breakers is one of only two Southern California FLL teams that qualified to advance to the World Championship in Houston and will face off against top teams from across the country and around the globe.  


To advance this far, the team had previously received the Champion Award at the FLL Qualifying Tournament and Regional Tournament. Organized by For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST), FLL challenges elementary and middle school students to solve real-world and scientific challenges.


“[FLL] at first glance is a robotics competition,” said Chen, who serves as the team’s primary coder. “We build LEGO robots, and then we compete with them and score as many points as possible. But FLL has a little more meaning to it besides robotics.”  


Each year, the competition features a central theme. According to FIRST, for the 2023-2024 season, the theme of “MASTERPIECE” challenges students to “imagine and innovate new ways to create and communicate art.” One critical component is the Innovation Project, where teams identify a real-life issue and present a concrete solution. In this sense, FLL doesn’t just encourage scientific pursuit—it creates the next generation of changemakers. 


“Our Innovation Project helps the autistic community,” said Liu, who specializes in consulting and outreach for the team. “We created Smart Sounds—noise-canceling headphones with an adaptive feature that adjusts volume based on heart rate.” 

The Code Breakers’ Innovation Project, Smart Sounds.

The Code Breakers’ Innovation Project, Smart Sounds.


The idea for the Innovation Project was inspired by Tan’s childhood and growing up “with two of [his] closest friends being autistic.” 


The team previously paired up with autistic individuals in peer one-on-one groups, and partnered with the organization WOW! That’s STEM to engage in various STEM activities, like making simple wooden catapults. 


Liu recounted being paired with a third grader in one of the activities. “He was so excited when we launched the catapult and it lit me up.”  


The Code Breakers want to continue with these activities; after all, the main goal of their Innovation Project is to promote inclusivity. 


The prototype, created by Tan, is currently in its second iteration. The Smart Sounds headphones feature an amplifier, two microphone and speaker jacks, and a heart rate detector. The “two microphones capture sounds” and “[play] it through the speakers on the inside,” explained Tan. 


If the outside volume exceeds a set threshold, then noise-canceling automatically takes effect. The prototype costs approximately $116; however, if a future pilot study demonstrated the headphones’ positive impact on the autistic community, insurance would potentially make the product more cost-effective. 


Xu, responsible for research and statistics, stated that they don’t plan to limit the project to the competition alone, intending for the headphones to be “implant[ed] in the real world.” For members of the autistic community who are sensitive to everyday noise, Smart Sounds could be revolutionary. 


At FLL, the Innovation Project accounted for 25% of the team’s overall score. But the Code Breakers had to excel in other technical areas, as well, such as Robot Game Performance and Robot Design. Game Performance assesses a robot’s performance when asked to complete certain missions. Robot Design evaluates the team’s overall engineering and coding skills. The Code Breakers have designed two robots: EV3 and Spike Prime. 


The Code Breakers’ two robots, EV3 and Spike Prime.

The Code Breakers’ two robots, EV3 and Spike Prime.


Although Spike Prime doesn’t have the ease of operation and powerful motors of EV3, the team prefers Spike Prime for its consistency in competition. The robot is split into various attachments to prepare for the 16 various missions in the competition, which test a wide range of functions. The team has named each attachment, affectionately titling one as Sir Lancelot.


“Our robot completes all the missions,” said Chen. “All the attachments are modular. They slide on and off really easily. We keep the [robotic] frames from last season, but we update all the function parts.” 


The Code Breakers observe their robot during Game Performance.

The Code Breakers observe their robot during Game Performance.


From the Innovation Project to the Robot Game, FLL is undoubtedly a demanding competition. So how does all this fit together on the big day? 


“Each team has different judging sessions,” said Liu. “In the judging sessions, we first introduce ourselves. Next, we go into our Innovation Project solution. After that, it’s Robotics presentation, where they ask about [our] Robot Design and overall Robot Game.”


Q&A sessions follow after both the Innovation Project and Robotics presentation. The final judging session is Core Values—this component accounts for 25% of the score. During Core Values, teams testify to how they’ve demonstrated the “core values” of enthusiasm, sportsmanship, and teamwork. As tangible evidence of the Code Breaker’s sportsmanship, their robots’ cases proudly display several stickers exchanged from other competing teams. 


If it sounds intimidating, that’s because it is. While the Code Breakers are seasoned competitors, even they get nervous at times. Nonetheless, they’ve learned to manage their pre-competition anxiety.


“We’ve practiced [our presentation] so much, it’s pretty much muscle memory by now,” said Liu. 


It helps that the team is assisted by several supportive coaches who guide the Code Breakers through the process. Despite having minimal prior coding experience, the students always had an affinity for building with LEGOs and were intrigued by the opportunity to go even further with them. 


Coach Eugene Tan aided in the research process by finding video examples for the team to model their first iteration of the prototype off of. Coach Henry Chen directed them through coding and breaking down information into more understandable chunks. Last but certainly not least, Coach Sharon Liu stepped in when the team was overwhelmed with their ambitious project, keeping them on track and focused on the bigger picture. 


Xu added that the coaches encouraged them to continue progressing by splitting the work into manageable tasks per meeting, simplifying their intimidating plans into something that can be accomplished. 


The team encountered its fair share of setbacks along the way. While readying the first iteration of the Smart Sounds headphones, the team accidentally fried the motherboard. Additionally, days before the SoCal Championship, the teammates had to work tirelessly to eliminate a static sound in the headphones, finally realizing that the power “of the amplifier and the microphone didn’t match up,” according to Tan. Even up to 24 hours before a competition, the team was revising code after a sudden software update. But these challenges were worth it for the breakthroughs that formed some of their proudest memories, such as when they first got the prototype to function. 


The Code Breakers proudly display their trophies at an FLL competition.

The Code Breakers proudly display their trophies at an FLL competition. 


This will likely be the Code Breakers’ last FLL season, as the members are close to aging out of the competition. The team looks forward to progressing to higher-level robotics by joining FIRST Tech Challenge and FIRST Robotics Competition teams, which use more advanced coding programs and materials. The students are also eager to continue improving the Smart Sounds prototype, exploring AI options to help discern wanted and unwanted sounds along with “adding a sound ceiling to minimize outside noises,” according to Xu. 


With a large span of future ambitions, ranging from becoming a transplant surgeon to engineering robots for space travel to working in finance, these students are enthusiastic to embrace their futures. No matter what they choose to do, their experience as Code Breakers has equipped them with many life lessons, including resilience and gracious professionalism. Chen explained the latter as being “professional at losing and gracious at winning.”


The Code Breakers are enthusiastic about sharing their journey in FLL with their community. They showcased their robot and innovative project at Holly Avenue and Highland Oaks Elementary Schools’ STEM nights in Arcadia. Recently, they volunteered as referees and shared their FLL experiences with rookie FLL teams at off-season FIRST events, including the FLL Cup and Rookie Invitational at Compton Unified School District. 


As the Code Breakers prepare for upcoming competitions, they are fine-tuning their robot and continuing progress on the third iteration of the Smart Sounds prototype. Reflecting on their experience, the Code Breakers—and their parents—are undeniably proud of how far they have advanced. Already, the team’s exceptional performance has exceeded their parents’ expectations. 


“It’s all a part of the journey, and I’m super proud,” exclaimed one parent. 


“In FLL, it's all about persevering […] even through all your troubles,” concluded Liu. “Always take it one step at a time and never give up.”