Our robotics season is over and yet the planning for next year has already begun. We use the same iterative design in the program that we use for the robot. It starts with a retrospective on what was done in the past, what worked and what didn’t, and what are new areas to explore next time? That’s how the season began last fall and it is how we will prepare for next fall. We had ambitious ideas for this year and although not all of them worked out, both students and mentors learned from the experience. We will use that information to formulate the next iteration of how we proceed.
“Steam powered” is a play on words. The challenge this year for FIRST Robotics was named Steamworks and was a steampunk themed game with dirigible-like air ships. It is also a reference to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education and the trending inclusion of arts into the acronym. Innovation requires creativity in order to find a new perspective on problem solving. Math and science are the core of the program and being able to nurture an idea from a formula into a three foot cube of a robot takes imagination!
At Dublin, we talk about how this is a safe space to fail, a place to try new things without fear. It’s a positive environment to stretch outside of your comfort zone by trying a new sport or be in the play, or a new class. What if in engineering, your comfort zone includes unexpected outcomes? Iterative design by its nature means a cyclical process of working on a project, seeing how it performs and then refining it. Over and over. The result of something not working or even breaking, is an integral part of the learning process. As fledgling engineers, we teach the students to talk through their idea to its natural conclusion, to think about what their expected outcome looks like.
Then they prototype using common material to prove that the concept will work. This is an exciting moment that usually goes one of two ways….The first is that the concept works and the student comes up with various modifications or materials to make it for real. The second is that doesn’t work the way they expected and they either come up with modifications or reset their initial expectation taking into account how the test actually performed. Is this failure? Or is it iterative design? If we subtract the negative connotation and replace it with genuine curiosity, what does that do for the learning process? We teach the students to be comfortable in the ambiguity that exists in the design cycle.
FIRST calls their robotics competitions “the sport for the mind” and in many ways the competition follows the team sport model. However the notion of winning or losing as the only result that matters is false in robotics. Challenge, disappointment, struggle can build resiliency when coupled with support and encouragement. Sheryl Sandberg said in a recent New York Times op-ed piece that “As parents, teachers and caregivers, we all want to raise resilient kids — to develop their strength so they can overcome obstacles big and small. Resilience leads to better health, greater happiness and more success. The good news is that resilience isn’t a fixed personality trait; we’re not born with a set amount of it. Resilience is a muscle we can help kids build.”
This year The Robotics Team had new direction in how they handled the process of meeting the game challenge. The team brainstormed ideas and agreed on an overall direction for the project. Then they divided into small groups to focus on components of the robot. One of the goals was for each component to be modular so that if needed it can be swapped out without degrading the rest of the build. Each sub team worked to address all aspects of their component, including computer aided design, prototyping, building, and points of integration with the overall design. The focus was for the students to be in control of their building process. They needed to reach agreement within their group, present their ideas to the team and have options voted on before proceeding. This was hard. This was good.
In his book “Creation Innovators” Tony Wagner talks about the environment, the teachers, mentors and parental influences that cultivate a curious student into an innovator. The book explores “how the adults in their lives nurtured their creativity and sparked their imaginations, while teaching them to learn from failures and persevere. Wagner identifies a pattern—a childhood of creative play leads to deep-seated interests, which in adolescence and adulthood blossom into a deeper purpose for career and life goals. Play, passion, and purpose: these are the forces that drive young innovators.”
Each year we have six weeks to build a robot from scratch. It’s challenging both mentally and physically, which culminates in a thrilling competition with 40 or so other teams. But it’s not about the robot. Learning how to critically look at a three minute video and problem solve the ways to address the variety of challenges within it is a skill. Being able to conceptualize and articulate your ideas to your peers is a skill. The opportunity to work with your hands and learn from multi-generational mentors how to translate that idea into to something tangible is rare in an app-focused culture.
When you speak to a student who has participated in FIRST robotics, you notice how they make eye contact, how excited and proud they are about the robot they’ve contributed to. The confidence that these students have is well earned. At Dublin School we strive to develop students who will teach, learn and create in the world. Each winter, some of them begin one robot at a time.