Robotics again

VEX Team 2700A from The Baldwin School
VEX Team 2700A from The Baldwin School (Photo credit: lorda)

Long time readers know of my conflicted feelings about robotics programs.  The jury is out on whether they attract students to computer science and/or engineering.  I’ve even tried to find research to support this one way or another, but so far no luck.  We had our first robotics competition this weekend.  It’s a long day.  We left school at 7:30 and arrived back again at 6:30.  Yes, that’s 11 hours.  But I actually like the competitions in many ways.  It’s a culmination of all that we’ve worked on.  Unfortunately, it’s also where it shows who is dedicating more time or money.

Robotics competes with other activities for time.  We hold it during the club period, 40 minutes twice a week.  Other schools will meet after school for a couple of hours and even on the weekends.  Our students have sports, piano lessons, and volunteer activities after school and on the weekends.  The way robotics is set up almost requires you to dedicate a huge amount of time to it.  There’s no room for dabbling, first-timers, or those just trying it out.

The girls had fun.  They learned a lot.  They got to talk to boys.  I did overhear a parent, a dad, say, “Girls interested in robotics? That’s who our boys should be dating.” Yes, I wanted to puke a little.  Part of me wishes we were a little better at this, so that we could show up the boys.  We do have a team that could do that, but they weren’t able to be at this competition.  Maybe next time.

I will continue to support my girls doing robotics because I think they approach it with the right attitude.  They’re interested in learning something challenging.  It’s fun.  And if they win, that’s just gravy.  I enjoyed being with them on Saturday.  They worked well together and rose to some significant challenges.  Will any of them go on to be engineers or computer scientists? Does it matter? Maybe not.

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Just when I thought things sucked

My week started out a little low.  I was feeling overwhelmed.  I was feeling pulled in too many directions.  I was feeling like I sucked at my job.  I’ll explain more shortly, but I have to tell you what made me feel better, first.

First, I talked to some administrators, who were very understanding and helped me find some balance.

Second, I got spend my morning doing fun CS stuff with students and having them say things like, “Having us keep blogs was a great idea!” (Thanks, Selena.)  And they just are generally fun to work with.

Finally, today, I walked into my classroom after school to find 3 girls building a robot.  I wasn’t there.  No one else was there. They had missed our club meeting yesterday, so they came to work today. on a robot. for an extracurricular activity.  As I told them, that’s awesome.

But, there were a few things getting me down that thankfully, my students and the environment I work in saved me from.

One is being someone who has skilz. Yes, skilz, with a z.  I don’t know that I’m the only person who can do some things, but I think there are an awful lot of things for which I’m the only person who has the skilz.  Problem is, I’m only one person, and I only have so much time.  And when everything seems important, and I care about everything, it’s hard to say no.

The second is a couple of my middle school classes. I’m trying some flipped techniques, and they’re kind of flopping.  And it kind of sucks because I was all excited about using this, and now I’m rethinking and feeling like I’m not doing enough to fix this.  But what I have to remember is that this is new to me (mostly), and it’s new to them and it’s a skill to learn these to do something before class.  It’s going to take time. Also, my class “doesn’t count” so the students don’t always take it seriously.  And I have a class with 22 students (which I know for public school is way under normal), but it’s a very hands-on, intensive class.  And I feel like I’m losing half that class. After talking with some colleagues, I have some ideas, which, of course, makes me feel better.

Even better, we printed space frog this week.  I’ll let you compare the 2D and 3D version.  What’s not to love about a job where you can help create these things?

Frog Photobombs NASA's LADEE Launch
Frog Photobombs NASA’s LADEE Launch (Photo credit: NASA Goddard Photo and Video)


space frog
space frog (Photo credit: lorda)



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Time Passes

How does two weeks go by–just like that?  I’ve had the busiest two weeks, and there’s more to come.  Honestly, I don’t see a break until spring break.  It’s all good stuff, but I really wish I had some time to sit back, think, plan (I’m currently planning classes at night because there’s no time in the day), and reflect.  I pulled out my to-do list yesterday, and sitting there are 3 or 4 long-term projects that I’d hoped to plug away at, but which I haven’t touched.

On the plus side, I’m giving a talk in a couple of weeks at our big national conference.  I also had another talk accepted at another big national conference that happens over the summer.  And I am spearheading a couple of things at school that are starting to come to fruition.  Which takes work, but it’s good work.  I had another robotics competition this weekend, which my Upper School students won (with the help of the boys school down the road, but they did some really good work).  We’re gearing up for another one in a couple of weeks.  I started another club that’s focused on programming, and we have 6 or so students coming.  I’ve helped a student land an externship, written a letter for another to do a programming camp, and I’ve presented my classes to all the grade levels.  Rumor has it that enrollments are going to be up next year.  We’ll just have to see how the schedule falls out.

I’m both excited and nervous most of the time.  I’m excited by all the good work around computing that’s happening at my school, and for myself personally.  But I’m also nervous about living up to expectations.  Stupid imposter syndrome.  But I’m plowing ahead, taking one day at a time.  I hope to be writing here more often.  I miss it.

Ban Jargon

“Jargon live in the swamps. They feed on attention. If they can’t get that, they’ll settle for fear and confusion.”

From Lauren Ipsem

Jargon drives me nuts, and makes me think of George Orwell. Technical fields are full of jargon and that often scares people. Yes, it’s a short-hand way to talk about things among members of the field, but it’s not a good way to discuss things with beginners. I have been on the receiving end of the poor use of jargon twice in the last few days. In both cases, the phrasing went like this: “Oh you just need a blibberdajibbet.” To which I would respond, “A what?”

In both cases, I knew what the thing was. I knew the definition, but the definition didn’t help me understand the concept. Also, Googling led to simply more definitions. This happens to my students all the time, and in both these cases, I was going to have to explain these concepts to students, so I wanted not only to understand them myself but also to be able to explain them well to my students. I felt sure they’d be hung up in similar ways to me, and perhaps in many more ways.

The first had to do with objects and classes, which I’ve only been using for a while. I was trying to generate a class definition and have as part of the definition a reference to another class. I knew I had done this before but couldn’t remember how–a clear sign that I hadn’t grasped the concept well in the first place–so I asked Mr. Geeky. His response? Well, you need an instance (the thing derived from the class definition, for those following any of this). He may as well have said a blibberdajibbet. I knew what an instance was. I’d created them and used them many times but what he said didn’t make sense to me in my current context. And he just kept saying it like it was obvious. I figured it out the next day when I had access to some code I’d written a month ago. His response makes sense to me now but what I needed was a walk through of what I was doing. He should have said something like, you need to pass in an argument that will be an instance of the other class (an instance you haven’t created yet, but will). The will part was crucial.*

The second episode involved building something for robotics. It involved something called a 4 or 6 bar linkage, which if you google, you need a master’s in engineering or math to understand. I tried to build one without quite knowing what I was doing. Then I Googled some more, where I’d find things like, “A 6 bar linkage is like a 4 bar linkage.” Or “You need to build a 4 bar linkage. It’s easy. Here’s our picture.” That was followed by an indecipherable picture. I finally found a YouTube video with a simple and thorough explanation. And twenty minutes later, I had one built. The video assumed you didn’t know much at all about what you were doing, and it was the only thing I found that made that assumption. Everything else that claimed to be a tutorial really was more about showing off what they knew.

The thing is, while jargon can make things efficient for those in the know, it can serve to shut out those trying to get in. It can be as bad as slamming a door in one’s face. My current field isn’t the only one that’s bad about this. Try reading some literary criticism sometime.

*apologies for the jargon. I could step it back even further and make it non jargony, but I’m tired 🙂

Girls Wanted?

We had our first robotics competition of the season on Saturday.  I definitely felt better about it than last year, but still noticed a distinct lack of girls there.  I’d say there were 10 out of maybe 300 or so people.  I’m not counting the moms.  When I got home, I asked Mr. Geeky if the gender balance got better in college (he does a robosoccer competition with humanoid robots and a robot blimp competition).  He said, no, that actually he often brought the only girls.

I ruminated on this last year, and pondered whether this was the best way to get girls involved in CS.  Maybe, maybe not, but there’s also the engineering aspect, the building, the mechanics, the stuff I’m not as good at.  And I do think girls need more exposure to that.  I have a colleague in the Lower School who’s doing this with 7 year olds.  I can’t wait to get her kids in middle school.

The thing I’m really pondering, though, is how to make inroads here.  This is not a group that’s hostile to girls; it’s just that there aren’t that many of them.  So I think it can feel weird to some girls.  I had a girl say to me, “I just realized how nerdy this is.”  And then she said, thankfully, “And I also realized I don’t care.”  I had an absolutely endearing conversation with a boy who was on our team at one point (each team gets paired with a team you don’t know for each match).  He was lamenting that they were have some “center of gravity” issues, and wondered if we’d worked out our lift issues.  He was unfazed by the issues we were having and just felt we were all in the same boat together.  It was really cute.

I can’t, I don’t think, by myself, get enough girls there to make a showing of girls. And I’m wondering if that is indeed what I *should* do.  If I were to frame this as a research question, I think there’d be several.  One, what impact does participating in robotics competitions have on girls’ interest in engineering and computing?  Two, what impact does the increased presence of girls have on boys acceptance of girls as equals in engineering and computing?  And, three, are there other ways of impacting girls’ interest in engineering and computing that are more effective?

As a side note, do these things impact boys’ interests in engineering and computing or do these kinds of activities intersect with some kind of cluster of interests that boys have in their pre-teen/teen years that create a prevalence of boys at these events?

I will say that I’ve noticed some things about girls that I hope this program can remedy.  Girls lack confidence in their abilities in this area.  Yes, our robot was not nearly as good as the best robot there, but a lot of other robots, built by boys, were also not as good.  The boys that built those not so good robots were completely okay with their robots–and just worked harder to make them better.  Many girls, maybe just my girls, assume they don’t have what it takes to make the robot better.  Girls are also not aggressive enough–on the field, in trying things out, etc.  This is connected to the lack of confidence. Girls seem to worry more about “messing up”.  As I said more than once, “What’s the worst that can happen?”  If you’re okay with the worst, then give it your all.

So, whatever my misgivings are about this whole robotics competition stuff, I do think there are ways it helps–building confidence in their mechanical skills and building their assertiveness in areas where they might feel less knowledgeable. It also develops communication and collaborative skills in a way that’s much more effective than what they do in classes, imho.  Yes, I know, I should just do the research already and publish it.  Sadly, the bad thing about being a teacher, not enough time for that.  In fact, I should be prepping for class right now!

Problem solving

I had promised a post on problem solving, somewhat of a response to this post, where Dave Burkhart puzzles over the problem with students who can’t seem to solve the problems put before them and instead wait for the teacher to give them an answer.  I see this all the time across all my classes.  Younger students are particularly dependent on answers from the teacher.  In my 6th grade class the other day, where we were coding up simple html and css pages, my students had their hands up almost every time something didn’t work, despite having detailed handouts in front of them which they could look at and figure out what went wrong.  I finally stopped and said, “I see a ton of hands up.  I want you all to put your hands down, look at your handouts or use Google to try to figure out what’s wrong.”  It’s somewhat excusable for students that young doing something that’s fairly difficult, but still, I constantly point out that they have the power to figure something out themselves if, by no other means than using the powerful machine that sits in front of them and which they often see as primarily something that they play games and write papers on.  That it might contain the answer to their question is astounding to them, it seems.

My high school level students are all doing projects of their own choosing.  I often don’t know exactly how to get them where they want to go.  Like Dave, I have students who wait for me to help and those that constantly ask what to do next.  To some extent, I think it’s a confidence issue.  They aren’t sure of their own ability to figure out the problem.  Most of my students do actually try a few things before they ask me for help.  But almost none of them spend time looking at the online resources or Google the answer. And, of course, it’s faster to ask me.  However, what I often do is ask questions.  “What are you trying do?” “Okay, what do you think might work there?” “Okay, you have to loop through this.  How do you do that usually?”  Some of it is learning concepts in one context and then having to apply it to another.  In other words, it’s about abstracting knowledge.  And that’s a challenging thing for many students.

In my robotics club, I’m seeing huge strides in problem-solving ability.  It’s kind of a chaotic environment (as opposed to a regular classroom).  Each team of 4-5 girls are faced with a challenge: build and program a robot that can complete several different tasks. They aren’t given instructions or drawings.  They’re given a box of metal and screws and nuts, motors and wires.  Almost every time they ask me how to do something, I’ll say I don’t know, and they know I really don’t.  Because when you’re talking about original design, no one knows exactly how to make something happen.  I’ve watched them go from fighting amongst themselves to standing around their robot, saying things like, “Maybe if we put stand-offs here that will stabilize it.” “What if we put gears at the bottom, the objects will be pulled in better.” “Maybe we need to tighten these screws here to keep the structure from wobbling so much.” The ideas bounce around until they settle on something that everyone agrees might actually work.  Considering how hard it was for them to work together at the beginning, I think this is an amazing achievement. And, thankfully, they’re being rewarded for it.

I don’t know what the exact answer is, but project-based processes seem to encourage problem solving more than discrete assignments with teacher-defined goals.  At least that’s been my experience so far.  I want to learn more and see research related to this. I don’t think my hunches are good enough.  And if there’s a way to encourage it across all my classes, that would be a big win.


We won (sort of)!

I’ve spent the whole day at our first official robotics competition.  One of our teams ended up as part of the winning alliance of teams that won the tournament.  In a way, they got lucky.  Their robot was good, but was only capable of scoring so much and mostly could do defense.  The teams they were grouped with had excellent robots.  Serendipitously, the other two teams in their group were both all-girls’ teams, which I think was partly why they chose to work with our team.  So yay, girls!

All our teams did fairly well, and I think they’re inspired to continue on and do better next time.  I was really proud of all of them.  When it comes down to the wire, the girls really do put forth a great effort.  We’re all learning a lot!

Some thoughts on gender and robotics

This weekend, I participated in a robotics competition.  Like last year, I have a handful of high school girls (5) working with the boys high school down the street.  There’s one returning student, two students who have some experience from previous types of competitions and two who are new to the whole thing.  I also brought some middle schoolers, who ended up helping by resetting the field between matches.  There were 5 of them.  If you count my middle schoolers, there were 12 girls total at the competition doing something besides just watching.  That’s out of maybe 75-100 total people.  Not a good percentage.

The show is run by some well-meaning folks–a couple of middle aged engineers (both men), several college students (all men)–but I’m not sure they appreciate how few women there really are, and why there might not be more.  The organizers had a hard time accepting me as someone who could actually help.  They needed extra hands to get teams to the fields on time, but one guy said while I’m standing right next to him, “Does she know how?”  Wouldn’t ask me directly, and didn’t think I could do a pretty simple task.  Kind of annoying.

Mr. Geeky came for a while and mentioned that he thought the girls weren’t being allowed to participate very much by the boys on the team.  I didn’t see any of this because I was busy doing the task that the guys thought I couldn’t do.  I plan on talking to them about it on Monday and see if they felt left out.  He thinks I should boycott the whole thing or thinks I should encourage rules that require gender and racial diversity on teams.  I think boycotting deprives interested girls a much-needed opportunity and they might just shrug us off.  But I also am not above thinking that we should at least be having more thoughtful conversations about this issue within this particular organization.

I would also love to see some more research on whether robotics competitions are the best pathway for getting girls interested in computer science.  There are lots of good things about this whole thing, but it takes a lot of energy (and money), energy that might be better spent doing other things that increase girls’ participation in CS.

Working Together

One of the most fascinating things about running this robotics club is watching kids figure out how to work together.  The mantra about 21st century learning is that cooperation and collaboration are at the top of the list, because things like cloud computing make it possible to do across time and space.  But working together is a really hard, especially for girls who are smart and used to achieving individually.  I’ve watched kids bickering, individuals doing all the work, individuals complaining that “no one is helping”, people wandering off from the group, and people getting frustrated.  It’s all part of the process.  I spend more time talking to kids about how to work together than I do talking to them about how to build a robot.

Some of them literally don’t know how to work as a team.  I find this interesting, though not unexpected.  They’re young; they’re not asked to do this very often.  And they don’t actually see the end goal very clearly because they’ve never done this before.  They’re all trying.  So although I hear complaints and see bickering, those are their ways of trying, so I talk to them about better ways to communicate, how to delegate.  I’ve seen kids make great strides.  Students who were bickering a couple of weeks ago now delegate work to the rest of the team.  And I find it kind of fun to try to come up with ways to help them work together.

I can’t emphasize enough how important I feel this skill is.  In the “real world,” we all have to work with people we don’t like or don’t agree with.  If we just worked with people we liked, we’d never accomplish anything. Am I perfect in this regard? No.  But I work really hard at it, because I think it’s important in order to achieve things within an organization, even as an individual.  Very little that I’ve done has been accomplished without some kind of help, directly or indirectly.  I hope to teach my students this as well.  We’re all in this together.  Working together is how we are going to solve the problems we face.


Scenes from the first week

The first full week of school is done, and boy, has it been filled with surprises, good and bad.  I started the year off without permanent furniture in my classroom.  We ordered it late, and then it arrived later than we expected, yesterday, in fact.  I’m still working on arranging my classroom the way I want it.  It’s not quite there yet.  I’m also trying to come up with a way to improve the acoustics–it’s quite echo-y at the moment.  My worries about not knowing as much as my students has been abated.  My fear came from two places.  One, I’m still an inexperienced K-12 teacher.  Two, I have several students who have gone out and “learned” things in my field on their own.  I’ve realized that it’s like being an English teacher who’s not read a particular book than a student has, and not like an English teacher who’s never read a book.  I’ve also realized that while some of my students have indeed explored languages and environments that I haven’t doesn’t mean that they’ve fully grasped the underlying concepts.  In fact, I’ve found that the underlying concepts are often a bit fuzzy for them, so now I’m helping them get those more clearly so that whatever language they’re in, they know what a loop is and when and why to use it.

I started a middle school robotics club this year, and I have 20 students–20!  I have no idea how this is going to work out.  But, it’s going, and that’s the important thing.  I have a wide variety of students, which makes me pretty happy.  I kind of know what I’m doing this year, so even though I don’t know everything, I can usually figure things out quickly.  I also have help in the form of a volunteer who has done this a lot, for which I am truly grateful.  Just having an extra set of hands is great.  I’m also getting a lot of great support from colleagues and my administration, which is really wonderful.

I will be glad when I get past in-service day, which I’m coordinating.  Things are going well there, but it still worries me that something will not go well.  All I can say is that I’ve done what I can.  I’ve been as organized as I possibly can be and from here on out, things will flow however they will.

Next week, we’re away on our class trips.  I’m going camping again this year, and I think it’s going to be very fun.  Geeky Girl will be on the trip as well, and she’s really looking forward to it.

I have to tell you, even though there were some rocky moments at the beginning of the year, I still love my job.  Yes, I’m working ridiculously hard.  I have a lot on my plate, juggling many different hats, but I still feel fulfilled rather than drained at the end of the day.  I’m careful about my time.  I really do work mostly only at work and when I come home, I turn it off.  If I do do some work at home, it’s often because I want to, not because I have to.  I’m looking forward to a great year.