Tuesday, April 16, 2013

There's No "I" in BulahBots

I recently shared some introductory information about the BulahBots, the FIRST Robotics team from Parkview Baptist School in Baton Rouge, led by Shawn Liner. Now that we have the introduction out of the way and you know a little about their story, I want to drill down and see if there's any educational value to this endeavor. We know that building robots can be challenging, fun, expensive and a nice diversion from school. But, the real question is, "So what?" In other words, what's the takeaway from a program like FIRST Robotics. Let's see what Shawn had to say about the lessons learned by the FIRST Team 3753, the team he's taking to Nationals April 24-28 in St. Louis.

Nathan: Shawn, you're the team leader or sponsor, but who actually was in charge of the whole project? the design? the construction?
Shawn: The students are in charge. I make a point of being the mediator and facilitator, not the boss. In fact this year they went against my initial wishes. I initially had decided that we should focus on the end-game (climbing the pyramid). However, the students debated and decided that run-and-gun approach to the task was a better, and more achievable, game plan.

I've been fortunate that I have a few gear-heads on my team. These guys have rebuilt cars with their dads and know how to use tools. They are in charge of construction, and they're responsible for teaching these skills to our underclassmen. I feel that the real game happens before we go to regional. My team is competing the whole time they are building.

Nathan: How much ownership of the project did the kids have?
Shawn: Actually, as much as possible. I have six non-students on my team: two adult mentors, three college interns and me. While it's been great to have that kind of participation, we work together to prevent one another from taking over. The team belongs to the kids. They design the robot. They build it, invent the name, the logos, the t-shirts, everything. We (the adults) keep them on task, keep them safe, and ask questions. It’s all very Aristotelian.

Nathan: How does the camaraderie of the BulahBots team members compare to what an athletic team or an orchestra might experience?
Shawn: That's difficult to say. Our “season” lasts six weeks plus a regional competition. We do build some great camaraderie, but the short time probably doesn't allow us to approach what can be accomplished in a year-long sport. I can say that we have had some great teamwork and the students have grown closer together. For example, I loved seeing my senior programmer teach my sophomore, and an upperclassman show an underclassman how to build and use tools. However, we still are a young, developing team. We long to resemble the more developed teams (http://team1912.com) that are year-round and more outreach and training based. I believe that when we reach those levels we will see more of that camaraderie.

Nathan: Were there ever disagreements on the team? If so, how were the conflicts resolved? Did the adults intervene or were the team members left to sort things out?
Shawn: This is perhaps my biggest job as a coach.  The truth of engineering is that there's always another way to do anything you set out to do. (Part of the fun of regionals is seeing how the other teams chose to flesh out our discarded ideas). There may be two ways to do it, but what do we have the resources and talent to flesh-out? Therefore, the conflict management is turning the conflicts into debates. I direct the team members' debate.

Nathan: Was there a "light bulb moment" in terms of teamwork and coming together as a team? 
Shawn: One moment that stands out happened immediately after our kick-off presentation during our rookie year. I had half a dozen students who'd never heard of robotics competition staring at me with fear at the thought of trying to get a mini-bot to climb a pole. Nobody (including me) had the slightest clue how we would go about making it happen. We decided that we would have a driveable robot at regional. That was our definition of success and we reached it. Many of these same students are still with me this year, but our goal was much higher. This year’s goal included a much-improved image at competition, and a cleaner robot that we could be proud of. The best moments this year included setting up our pit and getting ready for inspection. We felt like a team.

Nathan: What collaboration/teamwork skills did you see grow or develop during this process?
Shawn: I've often been curious about the dojo style of teaching. In a dojo, the Sensei teaches the blackbelts and then supervises as the blackbelts teach the brown belts who then teach the blue belts, etc. Because of how effective I found this method, I have always wanted to try it in education. I saw it happen here. My senior programmer taught my sophomore and, as a result, learned it more clearly himself. I saw my senior builders help my underclassmen understand how to use the drills. This was a great thing to witness, and I want to see more.

Additionally, I also saw disagreements about how to accomplish our goal get worked out with minimal effort from me. Students had to brainstorm an  idea, and then present it to the team. Unlike our debates in class, the students didn't just wait for the smart kid to answer and then agree with him. They actually had a good debate.

Nathan: If no member of the BulahBots grows up to become a robot-designing engineer, what is the takeaway from the experience for them? What do they get out of this? What’s the point? What's the takeaway?
Shawn: The most obvious goal of  any robotics team is to increase the number of students studying STEM degrees. However, our team has many components that are not directly related to building and engineering. In fact, with our miniature engineering firm, we've recruited graphic designers, web site designers, video editors, public relations members, etc. There is more to preparing students for STEM than just preparing them for engineering. 

One of my students will graduate and most likely will become a businessman, or politician. This student has learned quite a bit as he has fielded questions about our team and our robot to inspectors. Additionally, he has learned some engineering and how to deal with the creative/technical side of a business.  All of these people will be involved in technical careers in some fashion. Even the modern author has to have some problem solving skills when their word processor fails them.

You can follow FIRST Team 3753 on their website, on Instagram (@bulahbots3753) or on their Facebook page.

No comments: