Orville, Wilbur and Ella?

Ella working with the 80/20.

Ella working with the 80/20.

Yesterday was my first afternoon off from coaching since November so I spent the afternoon checking in on other extra-curricular activities. I have been dying to see the Robotics Team in action since hearing about the latest FIRST Competition rules. When I walked down to the “Bot Cave” I immediately saw Ella Rutledge working on the frame of the Team’s second robot. For the first time the Team has decided to build a replica robot that they can use to practice with before the competition and use for spare parts during the competition. Their competition robot has been bagged up and cannot be touched until two hours before the competition. As Eric Freeman told me, “If I have I learned one thing it is that the FIRST people love rules.”

Bagged robot waiting for competition.

Bagged robot waiting for competition.

Ella showed me how she was using a product called 80/20 slotted aluminum to build the frame of the robot. To me it looked like an adult erector set—very cool! I was impressed with how carefully, quickly and intentionally Ella worked with the material to form joints and create spots for add-ons to the frame. Alyssa Muise was designing the Team’s pit station for the competition, Dieter Brehm was working on a motor part, and Charlie Castle, Eric Freeman, Warren Umbach, and Armaan Gandevia were working together on an elaborate gearing mechanism that had something to do with their robot having the ability to climb a rope! Other team members could be found working on communications in the Café and on parts in the Maker Space.

Rope climbing mechanism. Photo by Jeff Harrison.

Rope climbing mechanism. Photo by Jeff Harrison.

I reflected on my experience in the Bot Cave last night as I was reading David McCullough’s story of the Wright Brothers. Orville and Wilbur Wright were bicycle builders in Dayton, Ohio who turned their engineering skills and mindsets towards flight when not making and repairing bicycles. While McCullough does not talk about how the Wright Brothers transferred their skills from bicycle to aeronautical engineering I assume that their experimental approach, problem solving abilities, and basic engineering knowledge helped them design something that had never been designed successfully.  My next thought was that Ella will most likely not be spending the rest of her life designing and building robots that will climb ropes. However, like Orville and Wilbur, I hope that Ella will be able to transfer and adapt the basic skills she is learning in Robotics; the design process, the collaborative teamwork, the trail and error, and the problem solving, to new challenges and opportunities in he future.

Should we have all of our students learn to build bicycles? I do not think so. Then, what are those high leverage activities, activities that inspire passion and commitment, that will develop transferable skills and mindsets that will allow our students to conceive of or create something that has never been imagined or built? This is the essential question I am asking the members of our faculty PRISM Team (Programming, Robotics, Imagination, Science and Math) as we develop curriculum for our students. We are also raising money to build a building, the PRISM Center, that we hope will be an incubator of ideas, space for collaboration and a source of imagination. As I fell asleep reading on the couch last night I thought of Ella and her peers working deliberately in the Bot Cave and of Orville and Wilbur working in their makeshift garage at Kitty Hawk, and I thought of all the exciting things our students will be doing in the future.