This weekend marked the culmination of a few months of work from my robotics students. We traveled to Shanghai to compete in the FIRST Tech Challenge tournament with 47 other teams. I got involved in FIRST nine years ago when teachers at my school in the Bronx tracked me down after hearing of my engineering background. They had just won the Rookie of the Year award the season before, and were excited to have an engineer around to help. Given that it was my first year teaching, I wasn’t able to be nearly as involved as I wanted to be. It was enough of a hook to get me to see how powerful programs like FIRST really are for working on the ‘demand’ side of the educational system, the problem-solving-hands-on-building stuff that makes students see what the end game of education can be. Playing with robots on a competition field is no more ‘real world’ than estimating the number of pennies in a pyramid, but the learning opportunities in both are rich and demanding. Nine years later, I am still as convinced as ever that these are the types of activities our students need to understand the context of the skills we teach them in our classrooms.
This weekend, we met stiff competition from our Chinese competitors. They built cascaded elevator systems, scissor lifts, and sensor systems that helped to play this year’s game, a tic-tac-toe variant played using colored rings on a set of horizontal pegs. More impressive for me was seeing the mentors noticeably bored and checking their phones while the students were the ones focused on tweaking their robots and fixing programming snafus.
This, however, was not our main challenge. The biggest issues that we faced were of our own creation – how to achieve consistency in our lifting mechanism using a web of zip-ties, or discovering just how unstable our own lifting mechanism was. The students were constantly sawing different parts of the robots off to make room for the solution to the last problem they created while trying to solve another. Clearing the complex residue of multiple good ideas to leave a simple, capable solution is the ultimate goal of a good design. The overall process of doing this is difficult, even with experience. They are early enough on the curve to know that there is much that they do not know though, and their positive and cheerful manner throughout was inspiring. Even after multiple technical issues and defeats on the field, they left the competition today feeling accomplished and full of ideas.
I was most inspired by my students’ reactions to seeing the clever designs of their Chinese counterparts. I have witnessed students wandering the pits at FIRST events and greeting unique and capable designs with accusation as the immediate reaction. “They could do that because they have so much more money” or “the mentors did all the work – it isn’t fair because we do everything on our team.” I understand the sentiment, but have always passed it off as being overly pessimistic. Some skilled teams make it look easy without always making obvious the associated level of effort required to execute such designs.
What made me particularly proud of my students this weekend was seeing them look at other designs and go through two stages of processing them. First, they would remark how cool it was that the team was able to solve the problem in such a unique way. Second, with some thinking about just how, they would say something along the lines of we could have done that.
While our ranking was closer to the bottom than I (or they) will reluctantly reveal, I don’t care much at this point. The team is young and will hopefully have more opportunities to learn and build together over the next couple of years. Their satisfaction was evident in watching the final matches with a clear sense of accomplishment, even while not being part of them. Their sense of togetherness is stronger than ever.
Our bus lost its headlights on the way back, forcing us to spend an hour and a half at a repair place while the driver and nine other people figured it out while the usual pattern of loud Mandarin was punctuated with hacking and drags off cigarettes. The team, meanwhile, procured a healthy supply of snacks and seemed content to sing along to music played off their school laptops. This is a close group that has only grown closer. Easily the highlight of the whole weekend right there.