My Faults My Own

One's ponens is another's tollens.

[OGPS] Impressions

lesson learned: "blog after the fact" goes pretty sporadically, and I never get around to saying most of the things I meant to. So I'm going to try to get the OGPS series of posts out the door by Wednesday afternoon by the latest. Let's see if I can hit a deadline of one topical post/week. My guess: probably not.

Today, I was late getting out of OS class, so I missed the 2:53 1 bus to Roxbury. And so I had to bike for about half an hour (I passed two 1 busses on my way, though -- never change, Boston) to get to Orchard Gardens Pilot School (hereafter 'OGPS' or 'OG').

I -- and the incredibly multitalented Diane Yang -- are volunteering with the nonprofit Citizen Schools to run an afterschool Lego Robotics team for the OGPS 6th grade. We'll be helping them to plan, design, build, and program a Lego Mindstorms robot to compete in the FIRST Lego League Challenge (FIRST, here is a forced backronym, not an adjective).

It should be an enormous amount of fun. I'm also incredibly scared.

You see, when I competed in FLL (three seasons, 2006-2008), I was coming from five weeks of summer camp where I had learned -- in some exhaustive detail -- the ins and outs of the Mindstorms RCX platform. (NXT is a definite upgrade hardware-wise, but the software level is basically the same.) The team of friends that I assembled included many, many good-at-math types who had been working with computers, Legos, and their intersection from young ages. And since meetings were at my house, my brother and I effectively lived with the robot, game board, and an endless supply of pieces for rapid prototyping and continuous tinkering.

aside: to be fair, we had no idea what we were doing. My dad remembers the following conversation:

Dad: What did you do at summer camp?
Ross: Robotics! Lego robotics! I want to start a Lego robotics team!
Dad: What's a Lego robotics team?
Ross: You know, a Lego robotics team!

Anyway. By three years, we had things figured out (or so we thought...). When we wanted to get clever, my dad ordered us a pneumatics set that we put to good use. It had stopped being "let's learn about robotics!" and had become "it's August 27th; the game specs are released; strategy meetings start now!" In short, we were playing to win.

OGPS is not playing to win. We're starting a month late. I'd predict that at most one of our kids will have worked with Mindstorms before. While we have three co-coaches, we've also got two teams to run, and a sharply limited budget to do it on. We've got a total of fifteen hours -- ten hour-and-a-half meetings -- to do general intro-to-robots, get kids working and playing with Mindstorms, Robolab, understanding the rules of the FLL game ("What's 'gracious professionalism?' "), and ready to travel to regional qualifiers with a competition-ready bot. And, of course, those are just the incidental parts; the essential experience is to have fun (thinking about) making things with other people. (Aside: isn't it sad how many coaches seem to lose sight of "learn something" and "have fun" as top-level goals?)

Not to mention the demographics. OGPS is in inner-city Boston, and draws from some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city (read: in the state). 90% of students qualify for Free and Reduced Meals -- which is to say, are from families making less than $23,550 for a family of 4, or federal equivalents. With standardized test scores well below It was only three years ago that the OG's standardized test scores ranked 620th out of 650 Massachusetts middle schools; repeatedly falling short of No Child Left Behind minimums, the school was forced to replace 80% of its teaching staff.

With new teachers and new administration, the school has seen almost impossible success in the past three years. Where their test scores were once ranked 620/650 among MA middle schools, early analysis of last year's results seems to predict that they're now somewhere in the top hundred. With a bold new Extended Day curriculum, Principal Bott appears to be leading his school on an unbelievable hairpin turnaround. Hopefully, we can leverage the up-and-coming momentum around the school to get our kids really, really excited about building robots. (Though, from my experiences yesterday, it doesn't take much to get kids really, really excited about building robots.)

The last three paragraphs of this post were edited, expanded, and reposted here.