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More schools need “robotic” learning

April 4, 2013

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The images in the slideshow above are all pictures that I took at the 2011 and 2012 FIRST Robotics Competiton Silicon Valley Regional. (FIRST stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology”). I’ve taken my sons to this event for four years now, partly to encourage my school and my participating students, and partly because it’s fun watching six robots zooming around and smacking into each other in a race to lift and place large inflatables, or play basketball, balance on a ramp or zoom up a pole.

If I’ve posted this online, then we’re on our way to the San Jose Event Center to watch the first day of this year’s competition, which is called “Ultimate Ascent” – yes, frisbee time! Watch the animated film below to see this year’s game.

But actually, the main reason I keep coming back to this event is that I love watching education in action. On the surface, it’s all fun and games, as long as you’re a kid who understands robotics, computers, engineering, CAD, and a variety of other technical and mechanical skills. If you look at the slideshow above, you can see there are great things happening here among the students, audience, coaches and mentors, referees and event organizers.

Students design, build, test and troubleshoot the robots. You can see them working in the pit, safety goggles everywhere, lots of tools and machines, spot welding and testing circuitry, electrical tape, rechargeable batteries and power meters and wire… things… (forgive my highly imprecise terminology). Students have adult coaches and mentors available, and you can see the intensity and teamwork as they deal with the pressure of time and competition to perfect the robot’s performance.

Then there’s the actual competition. Six teams at a time, working in groups of three, place their robots on the field of play. The “field” is constructed on half of the floor in a basketball arena, and the competition takes place under the lights, with dramatic introductions over the public address system, and cheers from the crowd. For most of these students, I dare say this will be the only time in their lives that their techincal skills will be on display in an arena with bright lights, loud music, and an introduction that sounds like it was meant for a basketball team on their home court. In this case, everyone is on the home team. Great fun! The Silicon Valley Regional draws teams most from our immediate region, but each year there are a few teams that make the trip from other western states as well. In the early rounds, teams are randomly matched up. Top performers from the early rounds then form alliances and advance to the elimination rounds. It’s great to see how the teams compete against each other and cheer for each other at the same time. You can see in some of the pictures above how the crowd gets involved, and a little bit of the fun that happens in between rounds, with dancing mascots and lots of audience participation. Teams dress alike – a common t-shirt and color at a minimum, but also various themes such as hats, stripes, or even mohawk haircuts. They often have a little team routine they do when they’re introduced, some choreographed interaction that recalls a touchdown celebration or an NBA team introduction.

From an educational standpoint, there’s everything to like about this event. Students work together for months, learning valuable lessons about planning, problem solving and collaboration. They are developing and using high level academic and technical skills that have immediate and obvious “college and career” applications, but they’re mainly having fun and in it for the comradery and the thrill of taking on a challenge. They are connecting with adults and with their communities, and I think it’s great to see the lesson they provide for adults as well, showing what teens are capable of.

If you look at the pictures above, you’ll see plenty of evidence of sponsorships, and I see that as an overall positive, though questions of equity arise. Robotics teams require expensive equipment, travel, and highly qualified teachers and mentors. And I actually mean – highlyqualified – in a sense that’s quite different from current definitions in education policies. It’s wonderful to see businesses and organizations taking an interest in supporting schools and students this way, and supporting activities that give the “nerds” or “geeks” a very cool outlet and public platform. (I use those terms with a sense of affection and fun, and I should point out that on my campus at least, robotics is now cool enough to attract a diverse group of participants). While I’m thrilled that FIRST Robotics is creating this dynamic opportunity for students around the country, I do wish that our education system as a whole had the vision and resources to create similar opportunities for many more students and many more schools. As usual, the lines between the “haves” and “have-nots” are evident here, too. How long can we afford to ignore or accept those divisions in our society?

I hope people who read this post and learn something about robotics competition will experience a slight shift in expectations. In other words, when we discuss “high expectations” for students, do we only mean that they have to step up and work hard? Or, might we hold ourselves to higher expectations – to provide equitable opportunities for all students to learn in challenging and meaningful ways? Experienced educators and parents know that students will rise to meet and exceed expectations, but we have to show our expectations, because students are smart enough to know the difference between words and deeds.

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