Tuesday, March 10, 2015

"Can I come at 6:30 am Saturday?

This is how an email started from a kid on my robot team last week.  Let that soak in.  A 15-yr old boy was asking if he could come over to start working at 6:30 am on a SATURDAY.  There is so much said in that one question.

The gang when they were 10.  The little mascots in the front
were 5 and always assumed they would become 'robot people'
when they got older.  They are my champion FLL team now
When I started coaching a little rag-tag Lego Robotics team of nine-year old kids six years ago to help my dyslexic child I NEVER in a million years thought I would be sitting here reading an email like this.  Nor would I think that I would be spending now 8-9 months a year continuously with these kids in my house every weekend and many nights.  Honestly - I wouldn't have done it as the thought of Pepsi-can pyramids amidst my Betsy Krieg Salm box and needlework accessories, so carefully arranged, would turn my stomach.  The fact that every Monday there is a carpet of Nerf darts that has to be picked up and the shear number of screws on my oriental carpet makes it glitter seemed too impossible to fathom.  Just like having teens randomly arrive at my door before I am out of my PJs with poster making supplies and computers and ready to work.

I am still just mystified at how Dean Kamen and Woodie Flowers invented a competition that could get kids to do this.  In a world where opening up CNN in the morning can just depress you to no end, I feel like writing this blog to express that there is good out there and where to find some of it.  One of our casketeers recently met Woodie Flowers (retired MIT prof of mechanical engineering) on a boat tour to Antarctica and wrote me about it in January.  She asked him about his work in robotics but he was way too humble.  He should have said that he had discovered the secret sauce to inspire kids to try to solve the world's pressing problems.   Dean Kamen, the inventor of the insulin pump, when asked about his greatest accomplishment immediately says "FIRST".  400,000 kids a year learning to work hard for months to solve difficult problems together.  The dividends will be amazing.

Winning Alliance Teams - we were the Winning Captain.
I think they have doubled in size and now I have to look up at them
These were the first two of six awards they have brought home
this season - realizing that not even half the teams get any.
Monday's are my weekend now.  I get some stuff done but I am usually just too wiped out from the weekend of chaos to be very useful.  This year, we had teams in two different types of competition.  The young ones, who I wrote about already, had a four-month season that ended at Christmas.  But during that time, I was totally ignoring my older team who were working in a eight-month season - purposely.  I figured that while we were intently training the young kids, they should take the reins themselves and learn the new metal robot division and use all the leadership tools I had taught them.  I figured there was no way we would get our arms around the new challenges and this would be a 'learning year' and it would be a great lesson for them to 'run it themselves'.   Our team meet schedules even conflicted so we often sent them on without us coaches -- something noted by the judges with amazement - this rookie team would show up without coach supervision!

This stuff coordinates so well with my interior design!
One kid gave me a high-five after the first competition (I was there) and laughed and said 'Learning
year my butt!!'  I had to beam.  Not because the team had just won the entire robot game and all-around award, but because they had done it almost entirely alone.  Nine teens organizing themselves, learning a complex computer/robot system in a few months and mastering it against veteran teams (some with 60 members!).   You can't buy that kind of experience and what that means for their lives.

Their first event was in October, two days after the Casket Tour and they had been sending me update texts while I was on the lecture podium at Winterthur.  Pictures of a robot they were proudly building kept 'pinging' in my pocket.  I got home exhausted after the tour and lo-and-behold, instant robot.  Drove them to the rookie training event the next day and the coordinators wouldn't let them in the door at first, not believing that they were a new team.  They were holding a working, scoring robot and everyone else brought half-assembled parts.  My team had hastily invented a scrimmaging robot because the parts for their design weren't going to arrive for three weeks.  They told me that they didn't want to embarrass themselves, so they designed a new robot.   At that point I really didn't understand what the State coordinators were saying when they told me that they were an impressive team after I joked that I was useless and now a 'credit card with wheels'.

Our reach goal this year was to make it out of the local qualifier to the state competition.  Not to be in the finals of the state competition.  And where was I?  I was teaching embroidery and lecturing at Williamsburg (never thinking they would get that far).  Stopping every time my phone buzzed to read the latest update from the robot pits from some excited parent.  This blog is partially for that group of stitchers to get a better update.  They watched me pace the room, freaking out getting text messages like "robot broken" "all-fixed" "won match" "650 points" "Made it to semi-finals" "Won" "In the finals!" "Tied 1-1".  and then dead silence as everyone at the games phones ran out of batteries.  Yes - I was a mess.  Finally, a message from a number I didn't have programmed in my phone with one mysterious word - "Scranton".

March 17-21, Super East Regional in Scranton, PA.  Something we were only hoping for in a few years.  These guys were one of seven teams (out of 80) picked to represent MA/NH/ME at the Super Regional in a massive three-day set of super-eliminations.  From there, 20 of the 72 teams go on to the World Competition.

I am blown away.

The kids are in six different high schools.  They have to coordinate their schedules, get drivers, deal
They had so much fun this weekend improving
the robot - now that they have so many wins under
their belt, they decided to make their robot light
 up too, like the World's teams they
watch on You-Tube.  
with different vacations and exam time frames and blizzards.  They have had to learn so many software packages, a new programming language, CAD their own parts, and learn so many mechanical and electrical systems that your head would burst AND figure out the game and how to maximize the competition.  Deal with getting parts from China, fundraise.... oh AND do outreach where they invent curriculums to help little kids learn STEM and promote this type of learning.  If you master all that - you get a spot to the Super Regional.  I am stunned that they effectively decided to do two seasons in one - learn everything from scratch and master it all while transitioning to new high schools.  This is why I say that Dean Kamen and Woodie Flowers have learned the secret sauce.  It's like Friday Night Lights but for something academic.

So, many of the kids on my teams passed through one school (2 are still there) and that school heard and asked me to put together a trailer to get their kids excited because they are going to launch a program to do this.   The secret sauce was to make the game as exciting as the NCAA March Madness.  That was the model and very, very smart.  Why should we only have events that push kids to ignore their school work and spent 3-hours a night practicing with a ball?  One of Dean Kamen's favorite catch phrases is 'this is a game where everyone can go pro'.

When I get emails from kids begging to work at 6:30am - I know they hit the mark.

Here is the trailer describing our team's seasons (so far) to get that middle school 'into the game'.  Apparently there was jumping up and down and many, many high-fives for the kids in the trailer.  Great to see something that wasn't a ball sport getting kids praise.  The Brainstormers are Team 8644 in the video.   I was asked several times in Williamsburg if the kids want to do this or if we were making them.  You really can't make them drink this type of stuff because they out number you.  And apparently if you tell them to take the weekend off (because you are exhausted) - they show up anyways.  The day after those kids won a spot to the Super Regional - they immediately tore apart the robot and rebuilt it to be better and faster.  Those kids who showed up at 6:30 am - they improved it so much that I would say it is supercharged now.  I thought that they were getting tired of the season after eight months of every weekend.  They are so energized that if I said that they had to build a rocket to the moon to compete, we would ride the rocket all the way there.

On to Scranton!!  Wish them luck.


  1. Amazing! I love what you are doing. I just wish all education was as thrilling and inspiring to kids. Keep up the good work.

  2. I would say 'Good Luck'...but I WONT~ NOPE~ NO GOOD LUCK~ you all DONT NEED LUCK~ you have earned everything you have achieved and more. I will tho, wish you GOOD WEATHER & GOOD HEALTH~ when you all win, I think the coach may need a gatorade shower ;) HAVE FUN!

  3. Go Team!! I love reading about your robotics team, Tricia. You must be soooo proud!!

  4. I am so happy to read this! All of us have become so invested in their success--please keep the updates coming.

  5. Fabulous news!! I look forward to hearing how Scranton goes.

  6. This is SOOO cool. I'm old enough to be these kids' grandparent and now I want to build a robot too! I applaud you all!

  7. WOW! to all of you and the best of good luck in Scranton - you all have to be very proud and excited!!!

  8. I enjoy your updates on the kids' success. You are doing such a wonderful thing in sponsoring this joyful and exciting learning! This is the kind of thing we need to do for all kids' learning experience. Good luck in Scranton and keep the updates coming!

  9. What an amazing story! Really enjoyed meeting some of your kids today.