Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Non-technological Element of Passion

I spent all day yesterday at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester watching gangly, awkward robots launch frisbees across a small court and run into each other. It was the Granite State First Robotics competition, featuring teams from across New England, New York State, Quebec and Ontario, including my son's team, Tin Man. As one local newscaster put it, the event is a  cross between Star Wars and Mardi Gras, and reminded me of a convention of sci-fi nerds. (Disclaimer: I have absolutely no interest in robots or computers as objects in themselves and would have been the last person in the world to get involved with robotics myself as a high school student. But I like working with my hands and solving puzzles, and it is these skills that I think my son has inherited. Besides, he has been fascinated by robots since the time he was a preschooler and has dreamed of building one for many years.) Also, while this will not be challenging our major sports for televised viewership any time soon, it is clearly a touch of genius as a way to get kids, and their adult mentors, involved in something that lights everyone up with with that essential and non-technological element, passion.
The teams spent sixty days building their robots according to designs whose only limitation was the imagination of their builders and the parameters of this year's game, or challenge, specified by the competition organizers, First Robotics. The idea is to give high school students interested in science and technology some hands-on experience in real life design and engineering applications and also make it fun. Costumed competitors danced and high-fived among each other between matches, while rolling their robots like charioted champions on and off the playing arena. 
It was inspirational, and made me think that we need to incorporate this idea of real-life and fun, i.e. experiential learning, into the entire curriculum of schooling somehow. By challenging teens to look at themselves doing something life-changing and meaningful in a cooperative, humane, self-organizing setting, robotics is giving these kids a leg up on traditionally educated, classroom and lab bound high schoolers who find it hard to know why they are being led down one direction or another, especially when they know that the adult environment they will soon be let loose on is one of great change, voracious and soul-destroying competition, and existential uncertainty. We will need many more passionate students trained in innovation and collaboration to come out of programs like this.
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