The Power of Can-Do

Monday night's New Hampshire Chronicle, a TV show, ran a segment on a class of fifth graders (how old would they be? Maybe 10 or 11?) who built a sugar shack (admittedly with adult help) and were actually making maple syrup.

Yep. Collecting the sap, pouring it into the evaporator, and feeding the woodstove that boiled the sap down into topping for your flapjacks. (The ratio of sap to syrup is about 32:1.) The best part of the story was listening to those kids explain to a group of visitors what they were doing and why it worked. One little girl told the camera crew that making syrup was better than reading about or watching someone else do it. We learned more this way, she said. Hands on!

The Lake Winnepesaukee Prowler
I will now flash back over the eons to a year I served as occasional advisor to a high school Shop Class. The project these dozen or so seniors had in mind was to build an autonomous underwater vessel and rig it out with sensors that could collect data on the lake's temperature, currents, turbidity, and the like. And they wanted to add a camera to snap photos of interesting submerged objects.

The teacher had invited me in because he figured that my previous editing on an industrial robotics journal and my work at Sensors might have taught me something. As I said, this episode was several years ago. Sensors and power supplies have shrunk; little microprocessors are affordable; there are teeny cameras that take large images; computers are far more available for student programmers. Many advances.

Discouraging Word
My first, and pretty much my only Discouraging Word, was to advise against going for both the untethered robot and the sensor package if those students planned to get their diplomas before the age of 30.

So they opted for the sensor package, carried in a teleoperated submarine (all made in the high school shop) and tethered to a lakeworthy boat. The tether served for data collection and to power the craft. You know what? It Worked. Those students blew me away with their can-do spirit, their lack of self-consciousness, their never doubting that their project could succeed—they focused on solving problems they had never seen before. Hands-on!

And FIRST Robotics
Please read the following sentence twice. The FIRST Robotics Program is a brilliant, inclusive, early introduction to engineering and science. Its creator, Dean Kamen, is best known right now for the Segway, but I'd like to see an occasional nod to his home dialysis machine and his wheelchair with a scissor lift that lets its occupant have a face-to-face with a standing person. Oh, and the chair can climb a flight of stairs too.

I like to quote Kamen: "Science looks around and asks 'why?' Engineering looks around and asks 'Why not?'"

But Something's Happening
I could have grossly misinterpreted part of a newspaper story I read last week. In fact, I hope I did. Here's what caught my eye: The Keene (NH) High School FIRST Robotics Club (the members call themselves the "Dirty Birds" (shades of George Gobel!) had as its partners in the regional competition teams from Trinity High School (Manchester, NH) and Quincy High (Quincy, MA). Those still-cheerful budding roboticists lost by one spot a trip to the national event.

To whom? Why, a team of students from Tolman High School (Pawtucket, RI), assisted by the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (Newport, RI), the University of Rhode Island, and the NASA Kennedy Space Center (Cocoa Beach, FL). Whew!

(To be sure, if the Trinity High team had brought help from their school's namesake the game would likely have gone the other way.)

Interpretation, Please
Thanks for asking. Remember what happened in the 1973 Soapbox Derby? The infamous nose magnet? Entirely parental. Winning just got bigger and bigger until it was all. Kids whose parents had workshops were relegated to handing down a plane or sweeping up the curls. That's what I really don't want to see happen to FIRST Robotics. (The FIRST means For Inspiration and Recognizing Science and Technology.) It's a wonderful program, and I truly believe it attracts many young people to science and engineering. And holds them there.

To Win or to Learn Something?
So I've been thinking too about the comparisons drawn between the Carnegie Mellon and the Stanford teams that were the lead competitors in the recent DRPA Grand Challenge. (Truth Note: I fell madly for Ghost Rider.) Thing is, the CM team consisted of undergrads and grad students; Stanford's was mostly PhDs and other faculty. Hmmm. True, CM was heavy in hardware and Stanford's navigational software was breathtaking. But who did the work?

Who Cares?
I'd like to think that university-level engineering students are no more slackers than those high school Shop Class enthusiasts who hammered down for the better part of a year just to see if they could pull it off. Isn't the best way, assuming manual capabilities, to build something—mechanical or a program—just to build it?

What frets me is that an initially interested young person, 11 or 18, or 20, will surely drift away from a project that becomes a demo. And that looks likely to happen when a team includes too many members (that number could be greater than one) with knowledge and experience far beyond the rest of the crew.

My colleague Melanie Martella, whose husband, Matt LaFahry, works for a robotics company that advises a local FIRST team, sent an encouraging response to a review copy of this blog: "The folks from industry are there to act as advisors. They know enough about robotics and sensors (or some sub-topic) to be able to help out the kids if they get stuck, which is a real issue with complex technologies like the ones they're using, but they do not do the work. The kids do the work." That's great! So it comes down to this: Hands-off or Hands-on?

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