by Amy Gilgenbach, WATG Board Member
I recently was a parent chaperone for my son’s middle school robotics team as they traveled to California for a large, international robotics competition.
Riding a wave of middle school ambition and high hopes, not to mention anticipation about visiting Disney, the students were excited and ready for the trip.
They had worked hard the last year preparing: designing and building the robot, competing in local matches, troubleshooting problems, strategizing and practicing.
Our team was focused on doing the work themselves and, for the most part, eschewed adult help. The designing, building and even programming of the robot was done by the kids.
This is a group of extremely smart kids, some of whom are officially identified as gifted and others who probably should be identified. They knew they were capable of building a good robot and they made sure we knew it, too.
In the end, they did indeed build a good robot. They also took a risk and made some changes before this last competition, changes that would enhance the robot if they worked but caused extra nail biting as the deadline drew nearer.
After spending a day settling in, getting the robot inspected and, possibly most importantly, visiting Disney, the team was ready for action. The first day consisted of a practice match in the morning then two qualifying matches in the afternoon. After an uncertain practice match, they won their qualification matches and ended the day on a high note.
The two next days brought more challenges – a problem with the robot, erratic judging, and watching a rival team succeed when they began to falter.
Our students watched as adults from the rival team worked on their team’s robot, coached students at the matches and strategized with other teams, did everything except, of course, drive the robot. It wasn’t fair, one of our kids said, because it was almost like they were competing against adults. But it is common occurrence in robotics, which relies on skills middle schools students may not have, like programming.
It is a modern-day soap box derby dilemma and for the kids with a heightened sense of justice, it was hard to watch. But mostly they were good sports about it and focused on what they were doing and not on what others were doing.
The competition was a pressure-cooker for the kids and each one handled it differently. Most of the time, a short walk and a snack helped. Stepping away from the pit (work area), walking with a friend to get ice cream and wandering the convention center that was packed with students from all over the world or stepping out into the sunny California day brought much needed relief.
We knew going into this that our job as chaperones
was to make sure no one got hurt or lost. What we learned, though, was that we also needed to make sure the kids were weathering the intensity of the
competition and, dare we hope, enjoying the experience.
Watching the team on the last day, I realized we
had succeeded. They had tied or lost (most by only one or two points) all their recent matches but as they lined up at the field for their second-to-last match, they were joking with each other and the other competitors and dancing to the loud music.
All was good.
Things were even better for the last match: our team had found a way to add music to their robot, using a newly-unveiled part and installing and programming it the night before. If they couldn’t win the competition, they were at least going to have fun with it. They used the new part in that last match, playing Mission Impossible. Oh, the ironic sense of humor of gifted kids.
Since the trip, I recently had the opportunity to
speak to a coach of a successful academic decathlon team. She mentioned that most of the students all thought of something they could have done better.
It’s that perfectionism, she said. But balancing the pressure of the competition and enjoying the experience was something she hoped to instill in the students on their trip.
“Sometimes they get so caught up in the competition that they forget to enjoy it. We want them to be able to look back and say, ‘That was fun!’” she said.
There were so many successes from our trip, successes not reflected in the rankings:
1. One of the students solved a problem that had been plaguing the robot off and on since the
2. Another member conquered their fear of flying to go on this trip;
3. The students got to talk and interact with students of other schools and nations;
4. They all learned so much, not only about robotics, but also about others and themselves;
5. And, most importantly, they all had fun.