Attending a robotics competition is like stepping into another world. Last weekend, I had the opportunity to watch San Dieguito HS Academy’s Robotics team, “Team Paradox,” participate in the FIRST Robotics Tournament at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. It was astounding.
Scores of students in quirky costumes hurried between the village of tool stocked booths, the testing area, and the competition ring. As I walked from the entrance to the Team Paradox “pit,” as our roboticists called it, I spotted students wearing matching gladiator outfits, “Pi-rate” costumes, and one team outfitted as Egyptian Pharaohs. I was happy our San Dieguito team had opted for whimsical t-shirts.
Mascots strolled through the event. Safety goggles covered every eye. There were more capes than a San Dieguito lunchtime.
Not sure what to do first, I visited our home base, a 10 by 10 foot area outfitted like Doc Brown’s laboratory in Back to the Future. Team Paradox buttons lined one shelf, yellow, blue, and red vinyl flooring defined the area, and an amazing student video played on a loop. They handed me a pair of goggles, saying: “You’ll need these.”
From there, I walked over to where other members of the team were adjusting the 2102* robot to better respond to the varied conditions of the venue. Unlike previous indoor events, this arena challenged participants with wind and ever changing lighting. This meant adapting the sensors and camera on their ‘bot, which they controlled remotely through a computer and an interface that reminded me of a flight simulator.
These are, I thought to myself, talented and innovative people who will make our world better.
Beyond outrageous technical skills, Team Paradox displayed something else: an ability and inclination to work collaboratively. They needed to work together as a team to create and compete, and beyond that they understood that part of the world of robotics is working with other teams as well.
“Coöpertition,” you’ll hear them call it, acknowledging that working in isolation is less effective than working together, and that winning at the expense of others isn’t winning at all.
In robotics, alliances are part of every competition, and these alliances are fluid. Teams know that the robot they’re competing against in the morning could be their ally later that afternoon.
How unlike so many of the teams we see in high school. How very much like life.
Team Paradox embraced this. Leading up to the competition, San Dieguito students worked with a cross town high school to help them establish their own robotics team. As mentors, they welcomed this new team to a world they loved, seeing them not as rivals, but as kindred spirits. When Team Paradox won the event this weekend, one of the first tweets of congratulations came from this team.
Even so, robotics is much more than an intellectual carnival. Teams work hard to design and drive the best robots they can, competing cleanly with strategy and spirit.
Along those lines, on Team Paradox member explained to me that a teammate had designed an app that they used when they scouted other teams. “We enter data into our phones,” he said, “and it’s put into this program so we can pull up graphs and disaggregate data on specific teams.”
Do we ask these same students to do less in classes? Do we recognize their abilities and help them achieve even more?
Seeing the robot, the app, the pit… seeing the students so focused and gifted, and at the same time so able to have fun, jolted my notions of rigor and engagement.
As I walked up to the stands to sit with the coach, parents, and other team members, I kept thinking about how vibrant this event was. Kids, laughing as they demonstrated an uncanny ability to put learning into practice, filled the arena. This was education at its best, and an example of so much of what’s right about youth today. It was, too, a challenge to push all of our students to achieve at their highest potential, to believe in what they can do, and give them opportunities, whether in art, English, or math, to be their own best selves.
A sea of yellow Team Paradox t-shirts greeted me when I sat down next to the coach. Among the crowd of mentors, parents, alumni, and teammates were two teachers who had driven down to the event. One Team Paradoxer offered to paint wings on my face, a show of team solidarity. A meeting later in the day precluded it; next year I’ll keep my afternoon open and leave with wings.
Then match time came and Team Paradox gave us something to see.
The students in the stands migrated to the floor, many with pom-poms, one with a megaphone, one dressed as the team mascot. They whooped. They cheered. They celebrated.
The robot began the match by taking to the air, hurdling over the obstacle on the way to its target.
The robot got stuck.
The team worked at their controls to right the problem, and the robot began again.
In all that, a metaphor for life.
I’m proud that at the end of the weekend Team Paradox won the competition and will head to St. Louis for the national competition, but even if they hadn’t I would have been just as pleased. At last week’s robotics competition it wasn’t victory that impressed me, it was students.
*They explained to me that the number assigned each team, and so prominently displayed on each robot, is determined by the order in which the team joined the world of robotics. 2102 then means our team started later than 2099, but long before 3200.