Sunday, January 13, 2008

Even prouder papa

Saturday was the end of the FLL robotics season for the Technology Cougar Chicks of Simonds Elementary School, as we spent all day at the Northern California Championship of the First Lego League.

TCC was one of 14 teams to advance from an earlier preliminary tournament. The 64 teams represented the best of 282 teams in Northern California from San Jose to Chico. The teams were judged on four criteria: robot performance, robot design, teamwork and presentation of an energy conservation research project.

Winning the robot performance was never in the cards, with four teams achieving perfect scores of 400. However, TCC raised robot score from 310 to 355 in five weeks. Our girls were disappointed not to get the 380 points we saw in practice Friday night, but finished 13th overall. This appeared to be the highest point total of any girl’s team and one of the top (if not) the top score for an elementary school team.

However, we were all stunned when the girls were recognized as best “Rookie Team” out of 16 participating in the championship. This was the only trophy they had a chance to win, and reflected not only their robot performance, but their poise, understanding and hard work in 30 meetings since July 8. Quite an achievement for six fourth- and fifth-grade girls who a year ago didn’t know that Lego makes robots.

Members of the 2007-2008 Technology Cougar Chicks. Left to right with their trophy: Connie, Sonya, Nicole, Katy, Anjali. Not shown: Sahana.

Being interviewed by a reporter from the Almaden Resident, I had to articulate the benefits of FLL. At a young age, kids learn computer science and mechanical engineering. More importantly, they learn about teamwork, stick-to-itedness and the crucial engineering principle that “stuff happens.”

In turn, I learned a lot about kids, K-12 education, and even technology policy from the exercise. There’s no government money in this activity, except for a few schools that get the equipment donated from their principal or PTA. As with Little League, the teams are run by parents, and the tournaments wouldn’t happen without referees, judges and other volunteers. (Google and the SIA were sponsors of the championship). Our team was greatly helped by volunteers from Leland High School’s robotics club: Natalie, Beeta and Jenny.

Yes, it would be nice if this opportunity were more widely available, but it’s certainly an important start. FLL (for 9-14 year olds) is completing its 10th year, and is a low-cost offshoot of the high school age FIRST Robotics Challenge. FIRST in turn was founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen, a serial entrepreneur and inventor of the Segway. These, in turn, are derivatives of MIT’s famous (and influential) design course 2.70 (now 2.007) that began nearly 40 years ago.

Finally, I learned something about myself. Nine months ago, I asked parents if they wanted to launch a robotics program at Simonds. The result was 21 kids on four teams, including six girls ages 9-11 (and three coaches) on TCC.

So far I’ve helped start one company, two trade associations, a computer club, a school science fair and a local Internet initiative. Social entrepreneurship can be as exhilarating as the for-profit equivalent, as is the satisfaction of building something from nothing. I can see why those who no longer have to worry about paying the bills find it very rewarding.

No comments: