I just volunteered at my first robotics competition — a FIRST Robotics tournament, in fact — FIRST standing for something about science and technology. I didn’t expect to enjoy it. In fact, I expected to really NOT enjoy it at all. I was picturing noise, tension, techy people who were so focused on technology they could not relate to people. I gritted my teeth and prepared myself for a five hour shift, doing my duty as a teacher and parent, putting in the time to support my kids.
But what I found was — yes, noise, deafening noise — but great noise! A band of teenagers playing, of all things, Herbie Hancock’s Headhunter and other fabulous 70s funk — and playing it really well! And all the joy and ear splitting cheers of a sporting event, complete with crazy home-made mascots — devil duckies, boxy robot girls in tutus, a dancing cow — and nerdy, beautiful, kind teenagers cheering for their own team-built, frisbee-spinning robots — and everybody else’s robots besides. I found hilarious, righteous team names — The Holy Cows, We Are Robot or W.A.R. Lords, Clockwork Orange team members in orange jumpsuits, and Super Heroes complete with capes and insignia.
I found an incredible sense of wonder and optimism — the students’ wonder at what they themselves had created, and wonder — not jealousy — at the amazing creations of other teams. There was astonishment at their own problem-solving abilities — the power in being able to fix something that is broken, or figure out a solution to something troubling. Take, for example, a team that travelled all the way from Lancaster, California. They had to get up at 3 a.m. to reach the venue. And then they discovered that the bus they hired to bring them to the tournament did not show up. No bus at 3 am might have meant no trip to the tournament. But these 20 kids in orange were problem solvers. And they had supportive parents. They called parents who rushed to the rescue in the dark of night, loaded up hand-built robots computers and kids — lots and lots of kids — and made the five hour drive. These families watched nearly 12 hours of tournament — and were all smiles when their team reached the finals. They are amazing, beautiful children, with amazing, beautiful parents and mentors.
The robots were almost as amazing as the people. There was a 6 foot robot that spit loaded frisbees clear across the room at almost 100 mph, right into a small slot. There were robots that could hook a climbing structure and lift themselves off the ground, robots zooming across the floor with remote control drivers keeping them from crashing in an arena crowded with six robots. The students who guided them worked beautifully as teams, huddled around computers, working right until they were called onto the arena to perfect software glitches, repairing hardware, and just cheering each other on. They even helped other teams succeed, carrying robots, cleaning up frisbees, offering suggestions.
I feel lucky I volunteered at this event. Every so often you witness something in education — or in life — that makes you say, This is why I am so lucky to be alive, to be teaching, to be a parent. FIRST robotics was such an event.