Friday, October 28, 2016

So Much for a Clean Robot Room

That WAS clean only weeks ago and was masquerading
as a family room. And yes - this year's competition
requires two HUGE (69" around) yoga balls that the robots
will hoist four feet in the air and place on a pedestal
made of tubes.  From my perspective, they are a pain as kids can't
help but sit on them and bounce or worse
 - try to play games with them in the room
I was talking to a Casketeer all the way across the country a few weeks ago and she asked me about the robot teams, saying that she enjoys the updates.  I know I haven't given any in a long time - well there wasn't much going on as it was summer.  Kinda peaceful having them come in and out on purely social calls and the basement room was blissfully clean.

Of course that ended in late August with the onset of the new 'seasons'.  I tried to keep them from setting up the big field as long as I could (means furniture moving) to retain some semblance of a normal looking house.  But that is now all out the window for the next seven months and there is even a banner nailed to the wall (more about that in a minute).  There are five fold out tables around the room filled with parts and the two 'fields' are set up.  The surfaces in my kitchen and family room are covered in electrical parts for the little kids project and my next door neighbor's yard is a testing ground for their latest project (Her kid is in it).

I don't want to talk about their robots and project as they are in full competition mode and their approaches to the games are under wraps - but I can talk about some of their outreach.  The big kids have been making instructional videos for the rest of the community.  They saw a need on YouTube for some of the expertise they had built up in the building area.  One of their hallmarks is trying to use just the parts that the systems have in them (i.e. big erector sets) and not custom milling parts.  That makes us faster to build and not wed to our ideas because we haven't spent a lot of money and effort custom manufacturing the pieces.  It also means that the experience of how to do things with the limited things in the box is useful to new teams.  Custom manufacturing is something that a lot of the high performing private teams do - and school teams don't as often as they don't have the budget.  So the kids decided to do this video series to help out the teams that just don't have the budget.

There is a whole channel on YouTube now called Brainstormers 8644 with
videos on Tips and Tricks that help teams figure out mechanisms, problems
with the electrical system and the pluses and minuses of different mechanism
types and building systems.  Popular with the coaches we have been hearing
as the kids give overviews without giving detailed directions so the kids can go
off and invent themselves but with an understanding of the issues to think about
That is how the banner got nailed to my wall.  Yes, I bit the bullet and said yes (and moved the art that was there - someday that is going to be a wall of samplers!!).  I was told it was temporary - two months ago.  So they went out and got a boom mic and good video camera, etc.  Set up a recording studio and off they went (secretly I approved all the good equipment knowing that I wanted it for my casket finishing videos in a month!  ha ha, got them to do the research on it!).

So the videos have taken off huge.  There are only 5500 teams in the competition type and yet one of
the videos is over 3500 views and one posted only a week ago is up to 1500+.  We even have the companies who produce the parts watching and emailing us with ideas of new videos.  So all is good. In a few weeks they will also be finished with the blooper video that will be up - it is hilarious.  You can imagine that there have been many outtakes recorded while trying to stay serious and keep on
Best meeting ever!!  There is a robot in the middle (note
kids can't help but sit on those darn game balls!) and the
entire team is around the first draft robot.  They are arguing
out the systems that are developing on the robot from each
of their perspectives as either builders, drivers, or programmers.
It was the first EARLY stage 'product' engineering meeting
ever and went on productive and highly engaged for over an
hour.  Not many real engineering teams get such engagement
with all the stakeholders in on the early decisions that will
impact the system.  I almost cried as it was a long time
in coming - they have matured and now really understand
how important these steps are - don't wait until the end and
drive what you are given or complain about the programming
of that system - get in on the design work in the beginning and
take ownership.  I walked away satisfied that my job as coach
was done.
topic.  And keeping a full house of people quiet during recording.  Yea.  That is hard.

The other thing that is going on is our new Robot Love team!  You might recall that we hosted an event in downtown Boston at a community center last spring.  We have been working with this group for quite awhile and spent four days there at the end of school and the beginning of school this year teaching the kids how to use the Lego robotics systems that we gave them.  At the beginning of this school year, we even took our 4'x8' table with the new competition down there and ran our own First Lego League meetings there with them -- because they now have a team of their own!!  We did all our initial brainstorming there and helped the kids with their robot and understanding how to approach the game.  We found several kids who were just hooked and had hidden natural talents.  It was soooo heart warming to have the two sets of kids working together and even having texts of pictures sent back and forth later on progress made.  It will be a long slog to get their team humming - there are so many things 'against' them.  But the coordinator and I have the long view - great things like this don't happen overnight.   And of course, what the center director and I noticed immediately was that it was the kids who have some problems that are most attracted to the robotics and show aptitude immediately.  A great outlet for their intelligence that was previously being overlooked and resulting in not so great activities.

The video is a perfect example of the collaboration between the two groups.  This is a run to take the shark mission to the right spot on the board and my son (in black) was working with the child at the center (who will be the captain of the team - he is sooo smart) and he had just programmed this run himself.  Love the high five at the end!  We will try to get down there again in a week to visit and encourage and keep them going!  Hoping that they get a slot in the competition qualifiers and we will go root them on!

So it has been a quite active season already and we are only two months in.  The robots are making noise every morning and night.  Quite noisy as this year the big robots have to shoot balls (really - really - don't they know I want clean walls and ceilings!)  and the Lego robot has to grab something and pull itself up and hang - just like the big one last year.  (yes - we are 'hanging' already - they were
Back from Germany for two weeks to get back into the
team roboting.  Hope she will be able to do that next
year as well.  She made huge strides in programming and
has been a key member since she was four.  
determined to figure that out!)  Workers coming in nightly and our two team mates who moved to Germany used their fall break to fly here to live with us and work for two weeks - will leaving Saturday after a very successful visit.

The one interesting thing I have noted this year, because we have girls on both teams, is the dynamics of how girls get pulled away from their interest in science and engineering.  It is a constant battle to keep them engaged and it is multifaceted.  So many subtle forces that pull them out.  We have to do lots of things very overtly and deliberately to keep them in the thick of it.  It is sooooo easy as an adult to be passive and let the small forces tear them out of it.  You have to keep at it and think everyday about how to keep them engaged and 'competitive' with the boys.  It is just so disheartening to see the social forces drive the wedge that takes girls who are just as smart and competent (and often more so) and make them feel not so in just a really short time.

On the Lego team, they are half in middle school and half in elementary school.  That is definitely the transition - and I have heard that as well, 12-13 years old is the danger zone and it has shown itself soooo much.  If I want to generalize, I will say that the kids in middle school are all (boys and girls) much more aware of their shortcomings and don't want to stretch themselves in front of others.  But boys are encouraged to 'be brave' and that is showing, whereas girls are encouraged to be 'perfect' instead.  That is resulting in many of the boys reluctantly tossing out tons of half-baked ideas and the girls staying back and not saying anything unless they are sure it is right.  We coaches had a conversation about this the other night and are going to put up a 'Failure Wall' in the room this week to collect and celebrate each failure.  We see the hesitance in a few of the middle school boys as well, afraid to fail - so this is to help them all.

The second thing, that is feeding into the first is experience.  There are two things here - aptitude and grit born of experience.  Half the kids are on the team because of aptitude and half are developing the grit by gaining experience, having had no technical bent originally.  It is my kids (boys and girls) that have the aptitude that are floundering this year.  They have ridden on their minds to get through each season and now are being passed by those who may not come to it naturally, but have been plugging away at it year after year putting more hours in.  That gains them experience and confidence.  And in middle school, it seems to be all about confidence in yourself to stick with something.   And we are talking about some super accomplished kids - one girl has consistently been the only girl in the State of Massachusetts to get a perfect score on the International Math Olympiad - multiple years!   She just rocks!

But it is at this point where it is all about time spent at the activity that is causing insecurity to set in.  Girls are pulled heavily by social forces at this point.  Birthday parties, middle school dances, sleepovers and other social activities.  Their 'life' at school is all built on making those social relationships through those activities.  Boys make their relationships and 'life' based on competition, playing games (like soccer) and working together.  I know there are dances at all the schools, but the boys on the teams would rather come here and socialize while working/competing - society is not yet penalizing them for not participating in these other activities.  It will in high school, but by then they will have used these middle school years to unknowingly establish an experience/confidence gap between them and the girls that can't easily be caught up by the girls.  And when they become teens, they seem to get that they can go to the dance, but they should show up at a different day to 'catch up' so they don't get behind.   It might not seem like much - but when things are rapidly changing in a joint activity, missing a night can put you far back in knowing what is going on and chips away at your confidence.  At this point I haven't kept track but I think the girls might be at a 2 to 1 or 3 to 1 deficit of just plain hours working on the competition.

From an adult perspective it has nothing to do with knowledge or even the ability to parse and catch up when you miss something - they are plenty smart enough - but all to do with confidence and feeling like you have the right to speak up and express your ideas because you are on top of everything.  I can see it happening in front of my eyes - how boys pass girls who are significantly more technically competent at this age just by the shear familiarity with the material because they have been hanging around more and are more willing to fail in front of others because they are praised for it in other parts of their life.  And the girls hold back even more - doubly because they want to be perfect and yet know they missed out on some information because they were splitting their time between what society tells them is important for girl culture (and it is, I am not disputing that) and the technical activity.   That sets up a dynamic that we have been discussing behind the scenes weekly!  When the kids feel less confident, they defer a task to someone else who they perceive as being more competent or ask to change to working on the research vs. the robot.  Danger - Danger - that is exactly how girls (and boys with self doubt) end up accelerating their experience gap even faster to the point of no return.  That is when both of us coaches have to double down and just say - No - you will stay at this one thing until you get it done.  You will climb the mountain and make it to the top - I am going to force you to do that.  It is really, really hard as you are trying to balance individual growth and yet the team needs to make progress.  And it seems pretty mean to the kid, I am sure.   All the while you are doing it, you are just secretly praying that the child gets to the end of the task and success before they have to leave.  So they get that 'high' that they need to achieve to gain the grit/confidence - close the loop.  It is funny, we work as a coaching team, often when we know it is close - we divert the picking up parents with chatting and a glass of wine to try to give the kid the best possible chance to get to that high of success that night.  We are loath to have someone else finish the task later but at some point, progress for the entire team has to kick in and we just hate, hate, hate when it comes to that point.

I can see why single sex teams for girls are a good thing - to try to do for them what it does for boys - becoming their social outlet for girl culture and therefore there isn't a deficit of time at the activity between the boys and girls.  The boys are 'doubling up' as it serves as both acceptable socialization for them in society's eyes and extracurricular whereas the activity is removing the girl from the acceptable socialization path so she is trying to straddle both and, like us working mothers, feels a bit inadequate at both.  Of course, this dynamic then creeps back in for the women who manage to get through the funnel and trickle into professions.  It hits us when we have our kids and continues to hold onto us until often we leave our field or do something else latterly, because our family forces us to straddle two responsibilities at once, chipping away at our confidence in how we are doing our job at both.

It is tough, as a coach how do you play it?  The kids are highly competitive and so when a child comes up to me and says - we need to be working Sunday's or shows up at my door hours early or on a Tuesday night - should I say 'we can't work unless the girls are here' or do I let them follow their passions and try to catch everyone else up as they show up.  And it isn't just the girls, one of my guys who is a natural has been pulled all summer by his interest in the outdoors and running and that has hit his confidence so hard this year I can't even believe it.  We have been working with him extra hard as I can see him teetering on the brink of abandoning something that is just engrained in his soul (building) because of feeling out of it from not practicing it all summer.  Again that middle school doubt in oneself is creeping in.  Sooo insidious.

At times I wonder what all this work and insight is preparing me for.  I hope it is a gaggle of granddaughters.  ;-)  Maybe I will be known as the 'robot grandma'.  :-)


  1. Thank you for the update. I have been wondering if you are making sweatshirts with your team this year. I get a lot of comments on the tee shirt. I need a new sweatshirt and would like to support the team.

    Tell the girls we are all rooting for them and will be sad if any of them drop out. And thank you for taking on this tremendous task.

  2. I am so impressed with what the young people come up with in these Lego robotics competitions, this is our future in action. Good luck to the girls and it would be an honor (and very cutting edge) to be known as a Robot Grandma!

  3. This reminds me of my life as a teen, and I wish I had someone like you as a coach! My mother told me that she wasn't going to pay for me to go to college because I would get married and my husband could support me. (NO!) So I paid for college myself by working hard every summer and during the school years.

  4. You are an amazing coach and I agree with the comment above. I am glad the days of discouraging young women to forsake school for marriage (I remember being told the same thing and also paying for college myself) are over. I am a modern grandma and it sounds like you will be, too :)