Monday, March 27, 2017

I LOVE silk purls

Close view of Cabinet with scenes from the story of Esther (later than 1665), Gift of Irwin Untermyer, 1964.  Metropolitan Museum of Art, Acc. No. 64101.1335
So if you had to ask me which of all the threads we have reproduced in the last ten years is my favorite, I would have to tell you hands down it is the silk purls.  There is nothing else like them and they have such texture and versatility.

Little silk covered silk springs, they can be couched down in long lengths or into short lengths and sewn down so they curve off the surface in humps or loops.

Close view of Cabinet with scenes from the story of Esther (later than 1665), Gift of Irwin Untermyer, 1964.  Metropolitan Museum of Art, Acc. No. 64101.1335
There are many caskets and pictures that are completed almost entirely in silk purls and the effect is magical.  One particular casket really 'trips my trigger' and that is the casket at the MET that I affectionately call the Esther casket.  The top and front are worked in over-the-top stumpwork and then the back is worked in satin stitch - the stitcher deciding not to waste too much time on the part that no-one would see against a wall.  But in between, the right and left sides are worked entirely in silk purls!!  It was a really well thought out transition between the super-relief of the stumpwork and the satin stitched back.  The silk purls that are couched to fill the spaces are high up enough to support the stuffed faces used on the front and top, yet lower in relief to form that bridge between the satin and stumpwork.  It is highly textured and can be stitched in little loops to add a bit more texture and variety.  Note the grass and the amazing leaves on the tree done this way.

Neutrals Family of Tiny Silk Purls
Of course to do things like this, you need many colors.  And in some cases, you need different sizes.  Silk purls came in roughly three sizes; a very large, a medium and a tiny size.  The first size that we brought back was the medium.  It was something we could make with the soie ovale as the base silk and matches that color line.  Then more recently, I started with a tiny silk purl line and produced the most useful colors by themselves - the greens, yellows, olives and browns that could be used for texture in grass and trees.

I will have a set of sides done up like this casket - all in purl work because I LOVE it.  I have photographed the sides of this casket SO much.  But if you look at this casket, you see all kinds of colors in it that are not only part of the pure color series (reds, greens, blues, etc) but also all kinds of
Stone Family of Tiny Silk Purls
'off colors'.  Those colors that are grey, stone, neutrals, slightly purple but not, etc.  The colors that allow you to separate more pure hues.  Think rocks, buildings, linen clothes, etc.  If we had some of these colors, buildings could be made, cool textured rocks in grottos could be done, snails and bugs, think of the potential!

So I am announcing a limited run of 19 NEW colors of tiny silk purls today and adding one new color to the medium silk purl (Clotted Cream - an ivory color).  Not a surprise, but these colors are aimed to match the supplemental colors that were added to the soie perlee family and more...and are based on the foreseen uses of them.
Flame Family of Tiny Silk Purls
I am sure you are thinking... hmm... greens, olives, browns, golds, flame, stones, neutrals...we seem to be missing a few other families of color to round the Tiny Silk Purls out.  You would be right on that.  But who says they aren't already lurking in my storage?  Maybe ready for some other announcement.  Tease Tease Tease.

These are the more limited amounts that I would produce of the valuable 'off colors', those that would serve someone well if they are doing an elaborate stumpwork casket or mirror and I know not everyone is doing that.  If they fly out of here, I will try to get more made.  

Close view of Cabinet with scenes from the story of Esther (later than 1665), Gift of Irwin Untermyer, 1964.  Metropolitan Museum of Art, Acc. No. 64101.1335

Close view of Cabinet with scenes from the story of Esther (later than 1665), Gift of Irwin Untermyer, 1964.  Metropolitan Museum of Art, Acc. No. 64101.1335
Close view of Cabinet with scenes from the story of Esther (later than 1665), Gift of Irwin Untermyer, 1964.  Metropolitan Museum of Art, Acc. No. 64101.1335

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Marbling Paper

Caskets have marbled paper inside and a friend sent me a link to a video where the techniques were shown of many of the patterns that are inside the caskets.  This is an old video and while you can watch it with sound - I was with the robot guys and so I didn't.  You know the strength of a video when watching it silent is mesmerizing.

Since we all love making and have been fascinated with the process of making the caskets, threads, etc - it is worth a view.

P.S.  Thanks for the nice comments on the Brainstormers robot season to this point.  I have heard about a few misty eyes as well.  For both teams, the competition is hard, very hard and thing happen that are out of your control or that are mistakes that you didn't control.  It makes any win soooo sweet and I know that because of the way they deal with the trophy shelves.  They all constantly rearrange them, count, read the labels and hope to get another to fill it.  It is the first thing that happens when our clown truck (called affectionately the 'swaggon') pulls up - they grab any hardware and run downstairs and cluster around and find a spot.  For anyone who thinks that participation awards are the way to go... nope.  Blood, sweat and tears and tons of hard work - and missing it by 'just that much' time after time; it drives them.  That is how character is built and you can tell because the award screams from any team earning one are so loud in the stands, you would think they just won a million dollars. The team that won inspire in MA this year was sitting next to us - the explosion was enormous with instantaneous crying and hugging and they were falling down.  We didn't come home with a 'big one' and so yesterday they started again.  Just two days off to sleep (record was 14 hours) and catch up homework.  And if they weren't here - they were skypeing in.  If it was easy or expected, they wouldn't have shown up until our regular Saturday meeting.

I know how important it is to them now.  The senior prom is the last day of Worlds and so far - only one is flying back for it... and ONLY because he is the chair of the event and feels it is his responsibility (yes) to do so.   And these boys are actually popular (and could get a date) so they really are giving up something, the class president is staying with us on the robot field.  Unbelievable!

One person asked me if the kids value the effort we adults have put into this.  I am happy to report that they made a video.  At most levels, the teams can submit a video about their coach to nominate them for the coach award.  I always think they are numb and not realizing this.  Well - they kept it secret!  After the award ceremony where they show the top three videos and award the coach the Compass Award; they clustered around me like excited kindergartners lamenting that they had made me one this year and had been talking about it all year and they were sure it would get shown.   They shoved a phone at me to show me the video and then replayed it in the car along with all the outtakes and recordings (which were hilarious).  As an adult - I got why it didn't win.  As a coach I was crying and so touched, it was much more an ode to a mother on mother's day, burnt toast and broken eggs on a platter and all in the form of a rap song badly off key (ok - they are engineers not singers!).  I got all the references but judges would think it was so 'off'; less serious mentor and more mom of a litter of excited puppies.  I won't be showing it - it is just for me and will go in the box with all the drawings of me as a fat mouse, the tons of coupons for free hugs, and other love tokens from my children.  :-)  Much better than a plaque.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Going to the World Championship Again!

Never count The Brainstormers out.  Ever.  That has never, ever been so apparent as the last two weeks.  After the stunning win at the MA States the team had only one weekend to regroup and get ready for the FTC East Super Regional in Scranton, PA.  This is shorter than normal due to the Feb vacation schedule for MA public schools which delayed our competition for two weeks.

Hours before snow starts falling - time to kick out some of
these kids for the blizzard so the team on the couch with
laptops has exclusive access to test the robot.  Notice it is
about 11pm.
Working throughout the blizzard - about nine inches outside
at this point and hour eight of coding.
So we were in high gear - realizing that our autonomous program needed some big work to make it more reliable.  The kids made a plan and as luck would have it, half are in private school and their two-week March vacation started that weekend.  So if you have been following along for years, you know what that means.  They live here.  And we had a blizzard in the forecast, so I really mean they lived here.  I went out for tons of driveway salt and food, food, food.  Groups were scheduled in for work blocks and the programmers with mechanical support team were sequestered here for the duration of the snow.  I can say that for every snow storm that shuts down school for the last three years - my house has had the team staying in it.  As soon as school is called - they load in cars and drive here to beat the snow.  It's like getting a free weekend to work.  It is also fun in a funky work-play way and this time I had to beat the rest of the team off with a stick.   I got text messages from those not scheduled to be part of the 'snow team' begging to be allowed to come and get snowed in and help.  But we really needed the programmers to be heads down so we held our ground much to their consternation.  The record was two kids who announced that the day we left for competition that they had been at our house for six days straight.

Part of the food shopping - pounds of flour and sugar and chocolate chips.  There must be warm cookies.  Dozens of them. My husband and I do tag team - one of us in our office if we have to be and the other down there.  Sometimes I can embroider, answer emails, chart something, post but sometimes it is just too chaotic for me to get things done.

We got to where we wanted to be.  Loaded in the car and off.  Day 1, judging and inspection and running in the practice fields.  All going great.  Got the match list and did the analysis and figured out the driving teams.  We were in Match 1 on Saturday morning.  That was when all hell broke loose.  Match 1 started as soon as the opening ceremonies ended.  They wanted all the robots on the field ready to go.  Asked for them an hour beforehand on the field.  We checked to see if they would let us replace our battery just before match and got a yes.  These types of batteries drain fast after unplugging from the wall and if your system is sensor/control system heavy it really depends on battery voltage.  We had one ready - and at the last minute after the droning speeches, the field tech refused to allow us to change it.  We lost automatically as the robot wouldn't move well.  Top teams passing us by told us they knew every second the talks went on the batteries were draining on the field and it would be a devastating match for the few top performing robots sitting there on the field as they use all the systems and rely on consistent top battery voltage.  And that was the match that the judges all stood around to verify if all the talk in our judging session about the robot and its performance was for real.  Very, very, very bad luck.

You can't even see the robot as all hands are on it working
rapidly as possible.
Now we already had lost the top captain possibility immediately in Match 1 (81 matches) and likely judged awards too.  A few matches later, a robot slammed into ours and lodged its wheel in our collector in a way that took 10 minutes to take apart after the match was done.  Neither of us could score - Rob, a hockey player, was our driver and after trying to dislodge to win the match, dragged that robot all over the field and pressed beacons to get more points.  Was kinda hilarious in a desperate kinda way.  But after that - it really went to hell.  Our autonomous was failing and there was an error code on the phone (controls robot) that the field techs from FIRST couldn't identify for us either.  It stopped the robot dead in two matches.  We were loosing and falling in the rankings.  We were down to 14th.  To automatically go to Worlds - we needed to be in 5th or higher.  On hindsight, it likely was that slam and caught robot that caused all the problems after that.

What is the error???
The options to get to Worlds by controlling our destiny were closing rapidly and it was only 3pm the first day.  This is when the character of the team defines everything.  Do you mentally 'go home' or do you go into the locker room at half time no matter how much you are down and still thinking that there is 'no way you can lose this' and keep your focus.  They had 20 minutes between matches - programmers going over the code and calling off the commands and the drivers mentally going over what had happened on the field to find out what sensor, motor, etc. was where the mistakes happened.  Run it again on the practice field.  Get that error again.  No, No, YES!  There is the error again.  A fatal error - match loosing error.  It could be only these five things.  Almost run the robot on its cart back to the pit and throw everyone an allen key - rip the sides off that robot with its dozens of screws as fast as you can and replace encoders on the motors and get into the wiring to the sensor control module.

There really isn't a lot of room in a hotel room
for this - but they made do!  Eight of them
working at once in that space.
A queuer comes to the booth and informs us we have to get to the competition fields with the robot.  Someone runs to represent us while the others have the robot upside down and run the programs watching the wheel progressing and a sensor test.  Run off to the field.  The last match of the day is won but barely.  Another funny error.   Back to the booth and back to practice and try to figure out the problem.  People are patting us on the back - the autonomous is still failing but the driver control period stuff is working great - but they know we might be hosed and out of Worlds.  There is only one more match to go the next morning.

Testing in the hallway late night.  Funny how
many MA teams on floor (3 other ones) and
we were all up and working jabbering with
each other.
We left the field and went straight to dinner.  The team unwound and again - their character showed.  They were laughing and joking and enjoying themselves - anyone asking would never have thought that they were on the ropes.

I stood up and gave a speech in tears - the kinda speech that simultaneous wraps up a season and also tells them that they should never be counted out - it was halftime and time to show everyone what they are made of.  Right back to the hotel and they all showed up immediately in the room where the robot was.  I hung out in the chair and played devil's advocate for every decision made while my husband reviewed all the matches on video looking for clues to what was going wrong.  The kids stripped that robot down and decided to do some major surgery on two things - making the assumption that the USB connector on the sensor module was flaky and loose now.  It was something to see - 11pm and they are throwing modules across the room to be reconfigured by a computer programmer, kids labeling wiring so they can put it back in the right way.  And the tests in the hotel corridor to see if every system was working and hoping they found the problem (lucky every room was a robot team - understanding people on the floor).

Back the next morning for our early morning final qualifying match.  It was the most important one match they had ever run.  The pits open over an hour before any matches start and the team decided to all go in that extra early hour.  Up at 6 am and loading the 300 pound cart/robot into the truck.  They ran it over and over testing it and showing people that we had fixed the system.  One pair of the team assigned to go find the top ranked teams and drag them over to show them it was fixed and ready to rumble.

I couldn't watch the match.  Their entire season depended on winning it.  The team arrived in the pit before the match score showed in the pits.  But their faces and arms in the air proclaimed that they won it -- and it was obvious without scoring it.  Crushed it in fact.   There was now a slight chance they would live another day.  We moved up to 9th.  It was now possible.

They were selected by the third captain to make an alliance and then another team was chosen to make the three team alliance (Only two run per game).  Then the unbelievable thing happened.  A captain is allowed to run in each of the three matches in a bracket level (it is best two of three games).    The captain went to the ref and declared us captain of our alliance to allow us to run in each game.  It was an incredible show of faith and tremendous character on their part.  Our first game - we won and missed the world record by 10 points.

In the end - in a series of six matches - we became the division finalists.  Barely loosing the entire thing.  This morning after reviewing the video - we realized it wasn't because the autonomous didn't work, the beacon it was supposed to be pressing on our side wasn't set up correct for the match by the field resetters.  Guess we have to add that to the checklist I had wanted them to use (another lesson learned).

They are beyond team mates and friends -
they are family.  This pair has been tight
since 1st grade.  
Still, almost winning the whole thing didn't advance us - the same fluke that cost us a trip to worlds the first year.  We had to wait in the stands through all the awards and see if any duplicates allowed more robot teams to advance in order of rank.  I tried to keep track but got lost and thought we hadn't.  The kids expectantly looked at me and I had to shake my head and say I wasn't sure - didn't look good.  We had been here before...

So when they announced our name - they burst into a mix of screams and tears - all those big 6 foot boys.  And the many, many teams we have made friends with over the years cheered too.  When we left the stands, I turned left towards the pits - but they turned right.  They went off to shake hands to congratulate other teams, thank ones who had faith and partnered with us, and commiserate with others who weren't as fortunate to make the cut and live another day.  I looked back at it and realized they were all grown up.  We ran into our high school team in the parking lot and there was so much raw hugs and emotion that we were going to be both going and sharing the big event together.

Half the team got in my car for the long drive to Boston.  The most laid back of all the kids was literally screaming that 'they had never worked a day in their life and it was all starting NOW'.  It was like the inside of the vehicle was a huddle for a big football game.  They have six weeks and will be tearing the robot down to its bones to fix any moving parts, sensors and wires, rebuilding and reprogramming non-stop.   There will be an entirely new autonomous strategy.  They have a tremendous amount of work planned - because they are never satisfied with their performance and have learned from their own mistakes.

 I always would like them to win - but winning isn't always getting the actual trophy.  I think of the trials and tribulations they will face in the future. Disappointments in college admissions, heartaches, job loss, illness, and all the things that are life; I believe that they have been learning to believe, breath and problem solve and keep their eyes on the long term; that what ever is happening now is just a course adjustment on the path to what they want.  A bump to be run over with their size 13 feet.  I was talking to one of the kid's mom a few weeks ago about what they had been learning; grit, speaking, etc.  Her son is one of the original kids and she said 'no Tricia - its 'everything' about life.

You can never count them out - as they never give up.

Gotta make more cookies.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Never Count The Brainstormers Out

Winning Inspire and Robot Game at
Vermont State Championship qualifying us early for
the Super Regional - a strategy that none of the top
teams in MA could understand asking us "why did you
travel to Vermont??"  After one of them didn't in MA and
has to stay home (they were in the semi finals of World's
last year), everyone understands why we did. 
I just arrived home from four days of competition in Scranton, PA at the FIRST Tech Challenge East Super Regional competition.  It was an epic roller coaster of emotion - culminating in half our team crying in the stands tears of relief and joy and clutching each other.

I stay quiet most of the season now on the blog as they have a huge presence in the FTC universe - their You Tube Channel just passed 51,000 views this season - to avoid giving away any of the robot design/strategy secrets.  

Two of our seniors with my son getting ready to drive at the
MA State Championship.  We had already qualified
for the East Super Regional so this competition didn't impact
us so we allowed the graduating seniors to learn to drive
and do one match in the competition as a thank you for
years of working behind the scenes.  As a coach it was more
than just that - it was strategic, I have learned that if the
majority of the team drives, they get more engaged  and invested
in the end product of their work.  We are the only team at
Worlds level that comes to competition with four
driving teams, equally competent.  Freaked our alliance
partners out yesterday as they had never seen that before and
made them nervous as we were switching people in and out
every one of the six matches together.  But it spreads the
responsibility out, the entire team understands the
minutiae of what is going on and the impact.  In the long
run - that small thing will be the success of everything.
You already heard about their outreach in the Boston Community Centers in an earlier post as well as their how-to-videos.  We are seeing the impact of them as the season has gone on, going out of state to competitions.  We have been having teams show up in our pit as soon as we arrive (we can't even unpack before a crowd gathers) and the first thing out of their mouth is: "I've watched your videos".  The next thing is either a discussion of how a how-to video helped their team build something for their robot this year or from a coach thanking them for the way they went about it - not giving an answer but showing a range of options with the pluses and minuses discussed so they are universal from year to year - teams being able to watch and think about the game and their strategy and decide what type of method might be best for them.  

We hadn't even been in the building for ten minutes and
already five teams had come by to look inside the bot.
The other reason they say 'I've watched your videos' is because we started posting competition videos two months ago to show capabilities to market ourselves to other teams because there are alliances that are formed at the end of the competition to go into eliminations, so people need to be familiar with your performance and abilities out of your state.  The person always next says - 'I can't believe you collect from both sides and can't figure out how you do it!'- this is followed by them sticking their face onto the robot and trying to see in it while our team kids explain how it works.  This is THE competitive advantage this year and I didn't want to let the cat out of the bag by saying anything about the team until now when it was too late for other teams to react.  It was the result of a shift in how we incorporated all the team into the robot design this year and one of the kids (keeping me awake on the drive back late last night) reflected on how slowing down and educating everyone on the mechanical side and then including everyone in the debate resulted in this mind-bending design.  It is a reflection of their extreme growth this year.

This year's game is a shooting game with many twists that make it hard.  The first 30 seconds are autonomous and the robot alliance (two randomly assigned teams in the qualifying matches) gets three balls to shoot.  The robot tries to automatically shoot them into their colored 'vortex' (basket) and then moves off towards two beacons that have buttons on them.  The robot tries to determine which side of the beacon is lit its team color (red or blue) and then press the button to turn both sides their color.  If the robot successfully finds the beacons and does that twice - the team gets two more balls to shoot with in the driver controlled period.  The point value for doing those things as well as the extra balls makes this autonomous period worth almost half the points of the entire game.  So if your autonomous doesn't work - you will almost always automatically loose the game at the higher level.

So in the driver controlled period, having only 5 balls to shoot makes the time to collect and shoot them crucial.  The more times you can go through that cycle, the more points you can make.  So our double collector design is key - we can collect balls without turning the robot around, wasting time.  The basket is designed to scatter the balls in all directions, making you drive all over the field and avoiding other robots to get the limited balls.  So if somehow you could shoot into the same wedge of the basket every time - your balls would roll to the same area of the matt making collection again faster.

The kids have spent almost seven months working on this mind-bending programming - designing a custom control system for the flywheel system that shoots the balls.  It takes the range from the basket automatically, compares that with the data they collected on how far the ball will go at a particular flywheel speed and chooses a speed.  Another sensor system turns the robot to align it to the basket, reducing the need for the driver to aim (and allowing us to have so many drivers).  But, when a ball goes through the shooter, it slows down the flywheel.  So the control system has to come quickly back to the same speed before the next ball feeds up so it will go to the same place in the basket.  And it has to do that without overshooting the speed by feeding too much power to the motors.  Most of the kids hadn't had enough calculus to do it - so one of the math wiz's on the team had to come over one day and figure out tons of derivatives on the white board.   And what an amazing thing - they all saw the real life application of calculus just as they are all starting to take it.

It works.  We are collecting and shooting more balls than any team.  But remember, that autonomous has to work for us to get to that stage.  Oh, and there is a dumb yoga ball on the field too.  It is bigger than the robot is allowed to be - you have to grab it and lift it six feet in the air and balance it on top of the basket at the end of the game for more points.

So their strategy has been working.  They won the Inspire (top judged award) and Robot game at their qualifier in December, qualifying for the MA State Championships.  Then the Inspire and Robot Game at the Vermont State Championship - getting one of the two spots to qualify for the East Super Regional.  

The video above shows a finals elimination match at the Vermont State Championship to show how the game works.  Our partner actually forgot to turn their robot on.  Once the autonomous starts - no hands inside the walls - so it couldn't be corrected.  So it was us against the other pair alone.  Our kids put up 225 points by ourselves and won.

Then two weeks ago, they went to the Massachusetts State Championships.  We had our seniors drive in three of the five competitions and had some troubles during the day with our autonomous.  We ended up 15th of 32 in the qualifying matches to everyone's surprise.  Massachusetts is actually one of the very hard regions of the world and two of the top teams decided to pair up specifically as they were sure they could beat us if they did - in a pretty confident way in fact.  And the numbers supported that - they should handily beat us in the robot game if we met up in the final eliminations as we three were the top performing teams over the whole season - way above everyone else.

MA State Championships, all the programmers around
the laptop on a table next to the queue during eliminations.
They can't have a computer in the competition area so they have
moved to be only two feet from it - going over the code
and making a change.  One kid hangs out
on the other side in a legal area getting tossed the phone
from the robot and running it to
them to upload the changes and then running it back.
No other team doing this.  And this competition didn't matter
in the grant scheme of things.
We were chosen by the second highest ranked team.  Once you have been in this for awhile - you build relationship with the other teams.  That team was with us in Lego for years - first competing against the Brainstormers and then with our Robot Revolution team.  We had flip flopped many times in qualifiers who was on top or second.  So we had respect for each other.  This is their rookie year in this metal robot division and we have shared much knowledge with them.  The team coach came up to me as his students were out there in the selection show and choosing us as their partner.  He told me that he knew we were having some sort of trouble with the robot (sensors) and that he knew we had already qualified so this competition had no impact on us at all.  'But', he said, 'I have been watching them all day and they are the only team that looks like their life depends on that robot working'.  He pointed at my son, whose jaw was set in a way that makes him look like Arnold Schwarzenegger.  He said 'look at that kid, look at his face, he isn't going to lose anything.  I don't care what problems your robot has been having.  They will solve it and I want you on OUR side.'

Our alliance partners and us at MA States.
Robot Champions again against all odds.
Well, we went into eliminations together and the other top pair ran their match against the 4th seed.  They put up 230 together and very confidently walked back to the tables to make minor fixes and watch our 2 vs 3 elimination match.   When the score went up of that match - they went white - 240 and we put up 80% of the point by ourselves.  My son said their hands were shaking.  Yes, we went head to head in the finals.  And yes, we beat them.  We also won the second highest judged award as we were ineligible for the top one, having already won it in another state.

And one of those two teams we beat was my son's high school.  The coach is the teacher for AP Programming and the entire team is in that class with David.  He walked into class on Monday and the leaders sheepishly admitted - yeah - we should have picked you as our partner instead.

Normally very humble, he responded simply 'Never count me out.'

Why that is important is tomorrow...

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Need a Good Laugh?

There are few things making us laugh these days and so I think we all need a good one!  As a mom who has struggled to stay professional in the workforce, this recent incident just tickles me more than I can say.  I think I have watched this dad and his wife deal with their adorable kids over and over and over and still cry from laughter at it.

I thought it was hilarious when the dancing girl came in.  Then to be followed by the kid in the walker... I started to pee my pants.  And then the frantic mom (who many think may have been taking a quick bathroom break when they escaped).  OMG.  For every woman (and man) who has desperately tried to balance their work with kids - this is a GIFT to us all. As one person said in the NYT comments, I hope these parents laugh and understand how this isn't a reflection on them - but a gift to the entire working community of families in the world - and that they play it at every wedding and major event in those kids lives!!

When I started as a newly minted PhD, I was the only woman with a doctorate at a 350 person engineering engineering company - that at that time only had SEVEN women on staff.  The most challenging thing was working while pregnant, nursing, and the unbelievable things that happen when you have young children who have NO concept of your work life.  I can't tell you how many of these similar incidents have happened to me.  OMG.

One of the things that broke me was when my son was two, I was forced to be the technical lead on a multimillion dollar redesign of the soldier system.  There were five 'tech leads' across this enormous team led by General Dynamics and I was not only the only woman but I was more than 20 years the junior of any of my contemporaries.  I stood out like a sore thumb briefing the generals and once the Secretary of Defense on our progress.  The project was 9 months long and required over 80 hours each week (I ended up injuring my arm - it went completely numb from overuse on the project).  So the balance of having my husband leading a start-up and this 2-year old was just mind-numbingly hard.

He was in a day care next to my workplace which was far from my husband.  So I would often have to go get him, feed him dinner, and then bring him to work and try to keep him occupied until my husband (always working late) could swing by and grab him and go home - expecting me home even later.  So David spent hours crawling around the industrial design firm next door where our prototype work was going on, sleeping under the conference table or hiding under my desk.  And that was when he was being cooperative.  Usually he realized we were going to my work when I didn't take the turn to the highway and would start wailing in the backseat.  At a company where there were only a handful of female engineers in the first place... well this was more than hard.   My having kids wasn't seen as amusing or normal - it was an inconvenience to them.  Male PhDs could have kids but not female ones.

One particular incident happened at a local hotel.  The company had brought in one of the top generals from Desert Storm as a consultant to teach me how to brief the Secretary of Defense and other top military brass.  My husband was supposed to pick up David so I was free - but he was stuck in an airport not able to get back to Boston.  So I was sooooo stuck.  I had to excuse myself and run around the corner to get David and bring him back.  One of the other women on the project tried to keep him amused in the hotel lobby - but he escaped and got to mommy.  I was mortified (a bit more than the day I went to the bathroom after a big presentation to a client to find in the mirror that I had whitish little handprints up my legs on my nice suit).  Well, the general bent over to me and whispered to me what a lovely young man I had with a huge smile - effectively telling me that it was OK.  David sat happily on my lap the rest of the meeting while I conversed about our strategy and how to present it effectively.  It took someone who had been to war and dealt with the deaths of young men under their command to put perspective in the moment and assure me of what was important in the world and that he didn't see me as any less because my kid sometimes intruded into the work space.  I had such respect for that man!

Monday, March 6, 2017

Beaded Baskets - A Series!

New Unmarked Basket - Bonhams Lot 353 15 March 2017
Last year I remember talking in the blog about the beaded basket of my friend, Anita Schorsch, that was up for auction and matched a basket that was in the V&A collection.  Both were marked with the names of the maker and were made in the same year, 1659.

V&A Basket - Worked by Sarah Gvrnall Avgust 24 1659
Amazingly another basket has come up for auction next week at Bonhams and it matches these two.  It took a bit of investigation of the pictures to realize that it was NOT the same basket and we had found a third in the series!  If you look closely, the three baskets have the same bead colors, but the girls put the colors in different places on the motifs.  That is the telling difference.   This is fantastic and shows how there were teaching pieces or kits being worked together by many people at the same time with some level of individual choice in application of the bead colors, and in the case of the one below, some larger beads being inserted into rows like pokka-dots.   Spend some time going back and forth between the three - you will see the similarities and the differences!  And if you have quite a bit of money to spare, you can own one of them in a few days.
Anita's Basket - Worked by Mary Blomfield Anno 1659

Sunday, March 5, 2017

So Why Teach Robotics?

By this time, reading my blog will have sensitized you to the word 'robot' and you might have been realizing that you keep hearing certain words out there all the time:  Robot, STEM, Coding and Maker-Faire. It's like these things are everywhere.  Toys, shows, news articles, initiatives, and there were plenty of photo-ops promoting these things at the White House the last eight years.  You might not have fully realized why.
When I have been out at teaching events, I have been asked why I am doing this with my kids.  The implication in the question has sometimes been an undercurrent of 'why are you forcing them and pushing them so hard'.  My response is usually about how you can't force kids to do this - especially at this level.  And that is true.  But there is actually a more fundamental set of reasons, and they come from my husband's and my background as well as insights we have been fortunate enough to have from our careers.  It's about survival.

President Obama and the many science fairs he sponsored
at the White House to bring attention to STEM and
robotics.  Here a FIRST team showing him their robot.
My husband was a refugee, someone who made it on one of the last helicopters out of Vietnam and it would take many paragraphs to tell you how close it was to not.  His father, an interpreter for the US Army and employee at the embassy, was a dead-man walking if they didn't make it out.  It was hard when they got here.  So hard.  There are years of memories he refuses to talk about.  His mother still cries about him getting a job when he was 12 to help the family.  That was back when kids could deliver papers and make money.  We really feel for the the kids at the community center and one reason it is so important our children work there as they need to understand.  He studied hard, got into MIT, always worked on the side, started multiple tech companies and provided employment for now numbering almost 1000 people.  He is always innovating and scrambling - you can't get the loss of his home, possessions, family, and country out of him - no matter how much he succeeds.  Not bad for a refugee helped by the government.  

My history is also not so rosy.  We talk about globalization and I lived in auto-town so it all started for us in the early 1970s - I watched what happened to Flint, Lansing and Detroit in front row seats.  We were in the middle of it and in the chain.  It hurt.  There are weird things my husband laughs at me for - like my refusal to pick fruit.  It connotes something else for me.  Pumping gas - I LOVE having someone do it for me as I did it every summer to help at my dad's business.  We all pitched in at the family business as it was needed, I can't stand a dirty car as I had a business washing and cleaning cars with my mom at one point to make needed money.  Health insurance, didn't have it until I got my first job out of college.   The insecurity and economic problems not having it caused for my family are profound and will haunt us all until my generation dies (due to pre-existing conditions of an employee of my dad's).  And we still are insecure about health insurance even today as my husband and I have almost always worked in new start-ups -- we don't get it until we grow the company big enough.  When Mitt Romney instituted his plan for Massachusetts - it was such a relief - we could get insurance to fill the gaps while we grew our companies after COBRA ran out.  Today, my doctor suspects I have a genetic problem with classes of medications (which caused my health problems last year).  But he and I know I can't test for it yet - not until the health insurance debacle going on now gets settled, lest I get marked with a pre-existing condition as we have to change insurance so often because we keep starting tech companies and having to move insurance.  I had to learn to be scrappy too.  I watched people without skills who made so much fun of me studying - realize too late that the jobs they expected to be there after they graduated high school evaporate.  I was getting out - that was how my jaw was set.  I might have a fancy education and letters behind my name, but I will do whatever it takes and whatever needed.  Fold cardboard, wash cars, whatever.   My kids NEED that mindset - that is how kids will survive in the global economy.   There is nothing on my robot team that pisses me off more than when a kid refuses a task because it is 'beneath them'.  Fast way for a tongue lashing by me (and additional cruddy jobs to be assigned).  

So while we are extremely comfortable (unless some health calamity happens combined with a policy change) - our mindset is not.  You can't take the refugee out of the successful businessman.  And we are looking forward at the skills needed to constantly reinvent yourself (as we have done ourselves) and know that schools aren't teaching them at all.  If they won't wake up and do it - then it is our job and we aren't going to slack off on that.  Hence the robotics.  It is a double bonus as it is not just the lessons in grit and how to learn and master anything needed and innovate and problem solve and technical skills and teamwork and on and on that this competition allows us to mentor.  It is robotics itself.  

We are pretty active in our two fields - mine is now being called soft robotics and wearable electronics and his is voice recognition and machine learning - both pretty hot and we are early innovators so are often asked to serve on task forces or advisory councils or serve on boards for start-ups.  For the last few years, I had the opportunity to be part of a set of informal advisors to the undersecretary of commerce under Obama.  What engineers and economists have known for awhile is that while manufacturing left the USA for cheeper labor years ago; as other world economies improved and thus their labor rates increased, there would be a point in the future where the cost to manufacture goods at home would be equal to the cost to manufacture them abroad because there are added costs of shipping, time delays, restrictions in shipping certain batteries, inefficiencies of working across languages/time zones and international issues of intellectual property.  While the labor rates would never equal US labor rates, if automation was added, the point where that cross over occurred could be pushed earlier than later.  And when you add in the consumer trend of desiring mass customization - time is money and you just can't wait for the product to come by boat.

It would happen in waves and at different times for different products/industries.  A local company called Dragon Innovation started out of iRobot and services small companies who want to manufacture their ideas (especially kickstarter ideas) has a great chart that takes into account the methods (textile, plastic, etc) and the number of units.  Below a certain number and it is far more efficient to manufacture in the USA, above in China.  And every year that wages rise in China and other alternative countries and robotics advances in the USA, that number of units gets higher.  Back in 2000, when we decided to make 15,000 e-textile blankets for Lands End with Polartec, we were able to do it 100% in the USA here in Massachusetts.  (I know so many textile manufacturing companies here - so much was coming back to the USA in 2000 and later to make bags, hats, blankets, etc. - there is little excuse for not making something here if you want to).  

I have long been a believer in local manufacturing, and as you all know I struggle mightily to manufacture the lion share of my threads with the original western companies.  I am offered and know the low labor rate makers who could make some bad knock-offs or I could screw over my friends in France and England who just do it right in search of profit, but I don't.  I believe in manufacturing jobs as a vital part of good economies.   It would be incredibly short sighted.

A little known fact is that the Obama administration spent years preparing for this shift and return of manufacturing to the USA.  My role was to give advice to the commerce department on my field of high-tech textiles; high value added textiles and where the sticking points were to prevent more manufacturing.  What things the government could do to accelerate the transition and capture those emerging and returning industries.  I had led a standards development and had led the largest scale manufacturing runs in the US and China at that point in this emerging industry.  We had been spinning our wheels trying to get over a hump - and standards are one of the reasons.  And a little known fact is that there is quite a bit here, there is a law that keeps critical military goods (think ballistic vests) from being outsourced overseas to ensure military readiness and an intact supply chain.  (Again, if you can take less profit for principal - you can manufacture here).  We also needed integrated manufacturing facilities where job training in textile work could happen (something lost) as well as small scale prototyping and short runs could be done.  And places where electronic testing of e-texitle goods could happen; something that can't happen in China yet because they have built their system on regional manufacturing.  Hence Manufacture NYC happened and a massive investment in a textile consortium in MA occurred last year led by MIT.  All targeted on these specific issues to increase the return of textiles to the USA.  

Part of this is the investment in robotics.  Automation drives the productivity and brings that cross-over point closer to now and the number of units up.  Robotics is hot in Massachusetts - super hot.  There is a new center called MassRobotics located in Richard's building and I have enjoyed attending many of the business consortium meeting with my husband - funny how our fields are converging.  I just invited to my technical conference a company that is working on a robotic sewing system for shirts.  I see a significant return of clothing manufacturing on the horizon.   

I highly recommend reading the book The Industries of the Future by Alec Ross.  It should be required reading for all teenagers so they can understand where to focus their studies.  While there will always be disrupting technologies we can't predict - there are trends there that are totally obvious.  Robotics is chapter 1.

Mr. Ross doesn't come at it as yet again another person ignoring the worker.  He starts out with his experience growing up in Appalachia and is about my age - so during the transition to a global economy.  So this brings up the second point of why robotics.  It is not to be at the forefront of invention, it is how to be on the manufacturing side as well.  One of the enormous problems we have in the US is that the workforce training is not in line with the workforce needs.  There are 200,000 open jobs in in the US alone for programmers yet few schools teach basic programming.  Companies are crying for machinists.  Manufacturing today is all about robotics and automation.  It is about designing the work flow of the robot, maintaining it, working with them, setting up lines, programming them, etc.  So the skills for the manufacturing worker are nothing like those of the auto worker of my youth.  Nothing close.  Spend an evening watching 'How its Made' on TV.  Half my career was spent going in and out of production facilities as I was part of a team that designed manufacturing machinery.  Manufacturing today is not what you think.
Robots helping a local manufacturer make custom mosaics
I just had a deck built by the This Old House guys.  Perhaps you have been watching that program and would have noted the visit to the company which made wood products for the Arlington Arts and Crafts House.  They made my rails and balustrades to match the old part of my house.  Totally robotic craftsmanship of the carving/turning.  So an understanding of wood craft and robotics was required.  The company across from Richard at the Design and Innovation Center?  A fine arts mosaic company - uses robots to place the tiles.  No more Italian companies exist anymore to do this type of custom work - too labor intensive.  So the workers work with the robots to do the job.   Ted Acworth and I had lunch with Richard last summer to talk about our joint work in old art industries and applying new technologies to it.  Not a coincidence, he coaches robotics too.  Take a look inside an Amazon fulfillment facility powered by a local MA company or the robotic warehouses that allows LEGO to continue to manufacture their toys in Europe.  

At least a two year technical degree is needed to do any of this.  So familiarity with robots and their basic concepts will be required to get a plant job.  And there will be many, many of these jobs, but people aren't trained for them.  That is the real problem that needs to be attacked and why you heard about ideas from the last White House about free community college education, realignment of local community college coursework to the needs of the local manufacturing industry (happening in MA), coding classes for kids, robotics and STEM initiatives and maker fairs.   Anything to get the kids moving in the right direction...

That is why I teach robotics.  It is about preparing the kids in my care for the world they will live in and how to survive and I hope, thrive in it.  That is why it is so important to bring robotics to underprivileged kids - the kids who can use those skills to bring them out of service jobs and into good paying manufacturing jobs - or perhaps to become an engineer and change their life like it did for both my husband and I.   

So if you have a kid or a grandchild...think about this.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Robot Update #3 - The Robot Game

The robot game is the 'hook' for First Lego League.  You put ROBOT and LEGO in the same sentence and it gets a small child's attention!  It only counts for 1/6 of the overall score but it is what is most important to most teams as it is the public face of the competition.  Everything else is in private judging rooms and even us coaches don't get to go in.  And when 1/3 of the score is that 'gracious professionalism' I talked about yesterday, it is hard to quantify.

Two big guys in blue?  Brainstormers being refs at States
One thing... they said they ALWAYS waited until the
end of the buzzer for each team before stopping the
So the robot game is a big thing.  My older team never cracked higher than #7 in the state in this pursuit of perfection.  They almost had won their last year but missed it by a second and the head ref stopped their robot from crossing the line at a buzzer - they would have had the world record that day if he let the robot go to the end of the buzzer like the other refs.  They won the gracious professionalism award that day as they picked up their robot and walked over to him and shook his hand and without fuss, walked away.  It was noted that they had some sort of tremendous robot issue all day (broken cable with intermittent contact) - managed to figure it out and fix it and then were stopped from letting their robot perform and win the top award.  And they behaved like the champions they had been the year before.  Honorably.  I saw it and knew their hearts were broken but they didn't show it.

We all learned so much from that experience.  Both teams were there and the heartbreak was turned into an analysis of what happened and how could they engineer things to not have it happen again.  It is a the basis of our process we use now to guide the kids through their development and what we will be releasing as the video series.  And the little guys - they took it to heart.

Simplicity, design for anyone to drive, testing until it is perfect all the time, and training.  It has worked for them so well.  After that year watching their older siblings heartbreak, they have won the robot performance award every year at a qualifier and second in the state every year.  Sometimes they even added the for-fun elimination rounds to that haul.  But this year was time for their own heart break to redefine themselves.

Very proud that all the members of the team drive the robot - amazing
amount of preparation for all to drive at that level.
This year saw a robot game that was a bit unusual, partially a product of a new head of that part of the competition, I hear.  And there will undoubtedly be changes for next year as there were two things that didn't go well.  The first was that the tasks the robot had to do were too dependent.  So your robot might have to go out from base and do something to a model to release a piece, bring that piece back and then go out and place that piece somewhere else.  Only after all three conditions were accomplished did you get points for that.  And there were some dozen things like that in two and a half minutes.  Complicated and full of failure points, it is a plastic toy system for gosh sakes and not a machined aluminum aircraft!  Usually each year there are tasks that don't require sophisticated navigation and dependences that a team can accomplish - especially new teams - that even though their point total is low, they have a sense of a good job done and accomplishment and want to strive to do better the next year.  This year, there wasn't and that was a disaster.  A typical year could find low scores at 150-250 and high scores in the 500-600s.  This year, almost half the teams at qualifiers didn't break 30 points or even get any points.  Zero.  My eyes popped out of my head at our qualifier as the scores started showing up.  Zero, zero, 10, zero... not good.  I am not about giving fake awards to kids, but some points to validate their hard work feels better than zero - even if 100 points was the same result as zero.

Then the second problem.  There was a mission on the field (first time I remember) that if a team accomplished it, the team on the table butting up to it that it straddled got the same points - for doing nothing.  Usually the mission that straddles the two tables is to get it first and deny the other team the points.  This new twist wouldn't be too bad if the point totals in the game are high and the points given to the team are low....

But this year, that mission was 60 points.  In a year where the average score at a qualifier was 30-50 points, that was a disaster.   You can't move on to the States unless you are in the top 50% of scores at the match and then the other judged things rank teams for moving on.  Sooooo.... at a qualifier, if there was one team who could perform this hard 60 point task - it would totally screw up the rankings by more than doubling other team scores.

And yes, that is what happened at our qualifier.  We could do that task and expected that teams would be overall doing better because our team was just pouring the work on and didn't know that the dependences were really screwing up teams.  Our top score that day was 230.  Every time we ran our robot the team next to us would jump up and down and scream and actually come over to ours after the match and hug and high five them.  This massive game design mistake was allowing us to mess up the order of advancement.   It felt terrible.  We won the day's robot performance fair and square and by a very large margin but it was a weird victory.  We had inadvertently screwed over other teams and could become a fatality of the same thing ourselves.

And then we got ready for the State competition and started looking at scores being posted from competitions around the world.  Europe always wins as they let kids 9-16 compete there so those extra two years in age always crushes everyone.  We had the 3rd highest score in the world.  And we were improving rapidly based on the learnings at that first competition.  The kids were getting really excited - they could crack the world record at the states and maybe even get the chance to go on as their project was very strong.  I couldn't keep them away from the house - every night a few of them begged to come over and practice.

So as every competition goes, there is always something that happens bad.  It is best score of 5 trials and we had our moments of stress - one of the attachments went missing for a match.  The kids did over 150 practice runs to get their driving choreography right so they could maximize the time the robot had to do its job and least time in base.  They had to finish with a few seconds to spare as the robot had to climb a wall and not touch the matt.  It was worth over 40 points and if they took too long in base - they would loose that score.  They were up to 312 points as a top score they could do and were hitting it at home.  We were hitting in the mid 200s every time that day (sometimes nerves slow you down) and were looking for that perfect run where everything went right and the robot climbed in time.  Well - they got it... kinda...twice.  One piece was judged to have fell on the line so we didn't get the points for it.  282.  Amazing.   A top 10 score in the world and should be enough to take home the #1 robot performance trophy for the first time ever as we were way ahead of the rest of the teams.

Then another score came up - 285.  Three points short.  They were crushed.  And then the realization that the team that put it up had a top score potential of about 230.  They had been given the 60 points by another team.  A week later, the team who walked away with the #1 trophy admitted that they hadn't actually put the points up themselves on their You Tube channel after some team pointed out that the video didn't show the same number of points.  At least they were gracious about it.   And I had to console my team that at least they had gotten the #2 trophy - there was a team (and we know them) that was the second highest score earned and didn't get anything and that was so unfair to them.  So this year, so many of the teams felt hollow both ways.  And even worse, so many new teams did so poorly that they might not come back.  The coach of our sister team let us know that our guidance and help had pushed them so high and she realized that if we hadn't done that - they wouldn't be back and the ball wouldn't be rolling for so many kids they can reach with us.  I am pretty darn sure this won't be repeated again.

The parents take it the worst, of course.  There have been many bottles of wine and much sorrow.  I have spent time turning the experience into 'drive' with the kids.  They are building a metal robot and learning the next level competition and going to events with the big guys.  Focusing on getting better at everything.  Realizing that if their project was just 'that much better' they would have moved on.   They keep asking me about the topic for next year as they are desperate to start really early (they never got why I wanted to before).  They are focused on becoming part of the Brainstormers next year after their season is done and doing all the learning they need now.   I can see that the hunger to succeed has ratcheted up another level in all of them.

That is what I have been trying to tell my parents, it is part of the lesson - to truly become excellent, you have to fail and if you successfully resist fixating on the 'others' and look inside and strive to be the best and look for areas of improvement - then you will succeed.  If it comes too easy, you don't work so hard, you always hold back as good enough.  It is the journey that is the reward not the trophy on the shelf.

And I mentioned to the parents that their time will come and it will all jive for them at once - I don't know when, but it will.  They were in the last group to run that day and the 20+ judges had come out for the ceremony.  And they crowded around only one table to watch a robot with huge smiles on their faces.  Guess which one?

So back to embroidery.  If the kids can look failure and disapointment in the face and get right back up on the robot - what is stopping you from designing or stitching your casket?   :-)

Friday, March 3, 2017

Robot Update 2 - Core Values

I usually don't talk about this part of the First Lego League competition but it is a truly very important part and the hardest to encapsulate.  It goes beyond teamwork and has a name one of the founders coined - 'gracious professionalism'.

At the practice matt at competition, this
picture says so much.  Something is wrong with the
robot, and no coach to be seen (I have the camera).  They
are all on their knees running it and trouble-shooting.
When you are at a competition, teams that operate like
this stand out.  They are engaged with the moment - not
running around or interested in something like free candy.
They are focused and running it themselves,
no adults needed, shared responsibility for the result.
That encapsulates teamwork and one
of the aspects of gracious professionalism us coaches
are striving for.  It is a very hard nirvana to get to -
that is why I take a picture when I see it.
It is the hardest part to learn as there will be natural disappointments and as we have learned the hard way in the past (and this year) times when things aren't fair or someone does something to you purposely.  It is all about how you behave and deal with those situations.  Do you whine and blame others?  Do you take responsibility for your own actions?  Are you your brother's keeper?  Do you feel that while you are competing, it is up to you to help those who aren't doing as well - or even harder - try to help those who could beat you?   And you can tell the kids - but it is a lesson that is only learned by going through trials and difficult circumstances.

My teams now have won in that category more than once the big award and each time they have struggled with it - not fully realizing at first that it was a super high honor for the adults to recognize their character as individuals and together as a team - they may have been wanting to be recognized in the project or robot area instead.  The older ones who are all starting to turn 18 have finally 'gotten it' and realize how important it is and have internalized the lessons.  It has driven their decisions in the last two years as a team and they are shocked to find out that they have done even better when they 'gave up' on parts of the competition and what might be the overall group-think by teams on how to be highly competitive for awards and did 'what is right' instead.

It is something I hammer on - doing what is right and trying to be humble.  It is especially hard to teach these lessons to my younger team who are mostly second children and naturally more hard-scrabble.  In fact, most are 'alpha dogs' who need to broadcast their success to not be upstaged by their talented older siblings.  So I have worked extra hard on them.  One year I had a section of their notebook dedicated to the word of the season.  Grit was year 1.  Humility was year 2.  I would routinely test the kids about the words and meanings and examples and how someone on the team had shown it, so it was hilarious when at one point I did so in front of another parent and their child proudly stated that our team was all about 'Grit and Humiliation!'.  Ugh.  It was back to the drawing board.

Working mid-season at the Center with Robot Love and
our teams
So we stumbled 18-months or more ago into working with a group of kids in Boston with the older team.  Nothing pre-determined or thought about as a good idea, just a series of circumstances that has snowballed and is likely one of the most defining moments for both teams.  It is a community center that is co-located with a set of public housing run by the state.  Lately I learned that federal housing doesn't allow undocumented people to live in it, but in MA our state housing does.  So there are many kids who are citizens or were brought here as infants by a parent who is undocumented.  At the moment, you can see the fear in their eyes and it is heart breaking.  Not all kids are in that boat - but most have some struggle due to family economics or incomplete family unit.  Some have come to work with us with obvious trauma, their interest in seeing a ROBOT up close overcoming their fear of strange people, and some with their Big Brother or social worker attending them.  Malnourishment is so obvious that sometimes our kids feel so bad when they mistake a child older than them as someone several years younger because their growth has been stunted; the area is a 'food desert' in the city.  The almost shocking thing is that the center is one block from a Harvard arboritum that is absolutely lovely (100 species of lilacs) and bordering that property is a very, very, very wealthy part of Boston - Tom Brady and Giselle live just blocks away.  As the center director and I were talking the other day - the Harvard property is 'the tracks' that separates a lower middle-class/poor area to emense wealth.  It is this proximity that makes it easy for me to bring a truck load of kids there all the time as we take a non-direct route, but it is safe.

We have come to know the kids pretty well, some even better as we have done joint activities to help others together.  That is a big thing at this center - and one reason we keep coming back - their mission with the kids includes giving back as well.  The teens work in the municipal parks in the summer to teach kids STEM and there is an orphanage nearby that they help out at all the time.  It is not the narrative that we are fed from TV - people looking for handouts.  It is so, so far from that fake narrative on the ground and why all our robot parents are behind me 100% in doing this.  All the kids at the center are looking for is a shot and they are hungry for learning, willing to share and proud as well.  Many of the kids are at charter schools and travel difficult ways to get an education, some have earned spots at a prestigious exam school - but they are limited in what they can do afterwards because of issues with the economics of college.  They cluster at the center to do their homework and have the usual and more dramatic struggles with the work and grit and focus that is challenged by the environment.

It has been extremely eye opening for all our kids to work with these children or alongside them.  If you spend any time, you notice things.  You notice difficulties with grit because someone isn't there to force them back in the door when something is really fustrating and parents who don't understand and have more pressing needs to get done who have to pull them away to do things like take care of an infant sister so they can go to work.  Frazzled and exhausted are the words I would use to describe many of the parents when we get a chance to meet them, not bad people.  And when they have the time, they stand there and beam at their child trying to work a robot just as the rest of us do.

One young lady is here by herself living with cousins and her aunt.  About to graduate from high school, she confided in me at a dinner I took her and her other STEM club girls to, about how she wants to study business so she can start her own and bring her mother and sister to the USA.  An elegant, tall, Haitian girl with just lovely manners and an amazing smile and laugh - she is a natural for business.  The team cried and cried this fall when we learned that her mother died in the hurricane that struck the country and her sister was missing and she was just devastated.   They could relate as one of the children on the Brainstormers lost his mother unexpectedly just two months before and it hit us all so hard, the team captain and I had to get him to let him know - it was devastating and the whole team dropped everything to be with him for days - we were already close and now so much more so.   I was really proud at how they reached out to her, bound by their common experience.

Going there is a far cry from our rich suburban life where sometimes our problems aren't so large.    Yet, they all share a love of basketball and that is the most common request I get when we are there - can we play b-ball together??!!  So they do (in my opinion, we get creamed every time!).

So we were terribly excited this fall when the center decided to take the plunge and form a First Lego League team of their own with our support.  We had already donated the T-shirts and robot materials and spent several days there teaching.  I helped the coach on the phone weekly with encouragement - knowing what they needed to know every week from my years of experience.  The kids would share videos and text messages and sometimes we found a day we could get in there to help and mentor.  Both the older and younger team did this.

Robot Love at competition (blue shirts) and that guy in the
black and white stripes - Brainstormers team captain
We all went to competition on the same day - but in two different events.  We didn't want to compete against them - but we did want to be there in spirit.  So we arranged that two of the Brainstormers who had worked with them the most were referees at the event.  Smiling faces at the robot table.  All day long - the teams sent each other updates for how they were doing and little pictures of encouragement (lots of thumbs up and smiles).  At one point the team, called Robot Love, was 7th in the standings at their event which is really high!  We had just crushed it at our competition with a huge score.

Text messages going back and forth
between the two teams
But what warmed our hearts was the gracious professionalism of that moment.  Our score was up on the board and we got a text from Robot Love - they were 7th - I ran down the line showing the kids the latest text message and they started jumping up and down for Robot Love and taking pictures to send back to them.  They were starting to internalize what was 'the right thing' - they were just as excited over their sister-team as their own performance.

We didn't do a public poster about this work, as would be standard at the competition.  We all decided that we didn't feel right about that.  I had the kids do a small one themselves, entirely in their own words with no suggested edits by me and only to be shown to the judges to discuss what they had learned working with the kids in Boston.  We debated quite a bit about this, should we or should we not.  It is about respect for the community - and that was a huge lesson they had learned over the last 18-months.  Things like shaking hands, name tags, learning how to pronounce someones name.  As we rolled up the first time I took Robot Revolution to teach vs. demonstrate, I gave them the following advice:  treat these kids like they were a new member of our team.  Teach them what they need to know and think about how you would treat each other.

So it was with much trepidation that I let the kids talk about this with the judges.  And as much as I was uncomfortable with the idea of taking credit, it was the right thing in the end.  As yes, they got a huge award, but even better was the email that came a few days later.  Seems that the head of the FLL program for the state had filled in as a judge that day.  And guess what they saw and heard about - knowing about the little team in Boston that had registered that year.  She knew us already from past performance and wanted to let us know about a big grant to be given out to promote FIRST in disadvantaged and underrepresented communities and that she would like to talk to us about writing a proposal for that grant.

The grant is to not only expand what we have been doing but to figure out the 'secret sauce' - a template for expansion in many centers and then sharing that with FIRST.  This grant process has consumed us for two months and the coach and director of the center and I have gotten all the kids involved as well.  The teens have been formulating and debating what the 'program' should be at the center and attending some of the proposal meetings or reviewing the notes after each one.  The day I left on vacation - we learned that we made the first cut and now needed to write the big, full proposal this month.

The Robot Love team, their cheering posters and a
wonderful thank you poster (with their refs) that hangs
in our work room right now.
It has been amazing and not what we expected over 18-months ago when we agreed to take someone else's spot at a outdoor event and met this group for the first time (and so happy we went back as there was a gang fight that had the event shut down fast).  Tomorrow I have a meeting with several center directors and their computer instructors - we are going in as a consortium.  They are going to be the test groups for our joint plan.  Our goal is to reach 188 inner city children next fall with FLL jr. or FLL.   After the first meeting with the center about the first grant draft - I left and looked at the Brainstormer kid I had taken with me (I know him... he will be writing grants someday and I wanted to give him that high-level meeting experience).  He was almost shaking with excitement - I said "this is going to work, Rob".  He responded - "Even if we don't get the grant - we will make this work.  We will raise the money.  It will happen!".   So watch out - they may use all the avenues for publicity (this blog included) to try to raise money if the grant doesn't come through!  ha ha.

I will write again on how we will do it later - we are very excited and both teams are chomping at the bit for this summer when we start working on our contribution that doesn't require the grant to do.  We will be filming a video series with the center to show other urban environments how to run a team.  They have been story-boarding it and making video clips already from footage we have of seasons past.    The video series will be one of the main resources for the new groups we are bringing in next fall.  If it works out well, we will edit them based on that experience and then release it as a resource for all groups who want to form teams in the future.   And there is a twist that the kids are really excited about - more about it later - but here is the official logo the kids made for their inner-city program.  Can't wait to see it on dozens of T-shirts!