Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

[OGPS] Impressions, Addendum

At the end of yesterday's post, I rushed through a few of my retrospective opinions of the Colombia-Howard County Robotics Team (CHoCoBots) '06-'08. On re-reading, I don't think I did a good job of saying the things I meant to say, and implied many things that I didn't. So here's my attempt at a do-over. I'll keep original text (I've kept basically everything) in bold, and write my addenda and commentary in regular-weight.

The other advantage we have over the Chocobots (Columbia-Howard County Robotics) circa 2006 is we've got a coach who understands the FLL competition very well. We, the coaches, can do intelligent things like leverage the mission-driven nature of the FLL game to organize our classroom activities sensibly, nudge our team members down paths that we (I) expect to pay off, based on past experiences ("How about tackling a shorter mission first, for easy points?"). In short, we intend give our kids the best experience we can by being prepared.

This, on review, is extremely unfair to the former Chocobots coaches. They (that is, my father, and the father of another of the team's founding members) gave new meaning to the word prepared. For a pair that knew nothing of FLL before the team's founding, they did their research fast, and wrote lesson plans, tracked popular strategies published online, built demo models and prototypes (which were promptly disassembled after team critique and discussion), planned and executed field trips, brought in special speakers, built game boards, designed logos, and tracked down software, kits, and parts.

The one thing they didn't do for us was the work. FLL, of course, is about kids' efforts, not coaches' contributions. And though they were both engineers by training and trade, our coaches really did keep their hands off our work, and let it be our own. And from that, I think a lot of us benefited more than we now realize.

If there's a place where I think they took it to far, though, it was in not shutting down things that would become unhealthy to the team in the long run. Some (like the programming-team/building-team divide, and the resultant hierarchy of prestige) might have been impossible to forsee, but others (like the fact that in our first season, the team 'decided' that our two female members were best suited to jobs in documentation and presentation) should have been serious red-flags. (Those two girls were the only team members not to return the next year.)

From here, it's hard to tell what (if anything) our two coaches should (could) have done to prevent the unhealthinesses that arose; I certainly believe that they did everything that they thought they could do. Perhaps they could have intervened more directly, but that would have violated the driving philosophy of our team: "Kids do it all; coaches do what they can't." We certainly were capable of putting together sub-teams and assigning jobs based on who we thought would be 'best at' what, so our coaches stepped aside and let us burn our own hands on the stove.

aside: I should probably say something about my teammates at some point. But I won't, because my memories are so skewed by this point that very little of what I say would be fair to them, and even less would be accurate. I will say this, though: despite my occasional implications to the contrary, by no means did I run the Chocobots by myself. Many mistakes, though -- especially the girls-do-the-documentation one -- were largely my fault. Lots of the time, I was simply the loudest, and that was often enough to put me in charge. From there, my competitive streak started making tunnel-vision bad decisions.

And I really don't mean to shirk giving credit where credit is due; it's just that most of my memories from five years ago are heavily colored by me being an incredibly self-centered jerk at the time. To those of you who are reading, though: you guys were the best. Really. We did some amazing things together that I couldn't have done along -- despite my then feeling to the contrary.

The most elegant design I saw in those three years came from a first-year team member while I was in my third season, building some godawful-complicated pneumatic lift that never worked properly. (For those of you who were on the `08 team, I'm talking about the carbon-sequester ball-catcher. Really, that was the best apparatus I've seen. Though the wind-up tree planter came close...)

For better or worse, Diane and I intend to take a more in-front-of-the-scenes role in our team than did the coaches of the Chocobots did in theirs. I think that it's the right thing to do; we've got shorter timeframes, farther to go, and honestly, are trying for a larger impact in these kids' lives. (The Chocobots were, generally, EC-laden suburban kids; demographically, our OG students are not, and in a purely speculative fashion, I expect that that changes some things a lot.) And we're college sophomores who couldn't keep our hands off of an engineering project if we tried.

So we're assigning kids to coach-picked "working groups" (in ways that we hope will keep a few loud kids from dominating discussions), scheduling up inter-team 'progress reports', and do intend to nudge students (not-so-subtly, if necessary) away from bad design choices (at the macro-level, not the micro-). "I-built-that! (and no adults had to help)" is a crucially important experience, but from the day we start building until we hit competition, we'll have less than a third the time to chase down dead ends than the once-were Chocobots did.

So lesson plans for the first three classes are written; we'll be watching kids work very closely in an effort to intentionally craft compatible, cohesive, and productive groups around week 4. Weeks before the first meeting, we've been trying to figure out how to make the entire experience as gender-neutral as we can, circumventing all of the dumb middle-school-ish ways we expect social pressures will align to push girls into "documentation", "presentation", and "supporting" roles.


Of course, this is not the last time that I'll come back to issues at the intersection of gender, STEM, and middle school (it's certainly not the first, either), but for now, I'll give one shout-out to my mom for reminding me it's a thing I need to be thinking about, pretty much constantly:

A phone conversation from July:

Ross: So, I've signed up as a volunteer to run a robotics team in Boston.
Mom: By yourself?
Ross: Yeah.
Mom: Two things: 1) Get a co-coach. 2) Make sure that she's female.
Ross: Of course! How'd I forget?
Mom: Most people aren't used to thinking about it. At least you get that it's important.
Ross: Yeah, you did a good job impressing that one on me early on.

My mom, by the way, is the Director of the Center for Women in Technology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She's pretty darn awesome.