First Time Around
Two years ago, my sons went to a First Lego League training class at the beginning of the school year. They showed varying degrees of interest: My younger, more scientific son, whose interests include programming and 3-D modeling now, was already starting to fiddle around with programming then. He very quickly took to the procedure of plugging commands into the computer so that the robot would do things. My other son mainly wandered up and down while the class went on. It is a mystery to me exactly how much he absorbed, but he never complained or made an effort to leave, so that’s saying something.
When it was over, we left the class, and I asked whether they were ready to join a robotics team. My younger son shrugged his shoulders, a bit disappointed. He wasn’t happy that the robots were programmed with a “Scratch”-style modular format. You basically cut and paste icons that contained the programming language for various commands from one screen to another. He felt, in 7th grade, as a homeschooler with an Arduino and a Github account, that he was a bit beyond that. “It isn’t really programming,” he said.
Second Time’s the Charm
Well, my son is looking into robotics again. Over the summer he has attended five of six classes meant to teach Java programming to kids and their parents and coaches, to make the competitive season and the building of the robots that much easier. I’ve sat in on several of the sessions. Most of it is above my head. But I watched my son. Some of it may be familiar, but he isn’t bored this time.
I don’t know if this trend is sweeping the nation yet, but in our community, robotics is all the rage. Many middle schools and high schools have joined the elementary level First Lego League Teams, also taking up the mantle.
They use robot kits by Tetrix for First Tech Challenge (middle-high school) that are like Erector sets from the olden days. They program them with real Java programming language commands, developing their own correct syntax, using the interface used to create Android apps. They attach and program the robot’s sensors in creative ways to inform the robot where it is in space. They are basically creating a cell phone app that tells their robot how to navigate a course.
Alternatively, another program, First Robotics (a high school league), builds even larger robots.
The number of schools and teams participating has grown exponentially over time. Everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon. And this might be the year we jump on too.
What About Homeschoolers?
If it’s so popular in the schools, you can be sure homeschoolers are going to want to participate as well. And why not? There is plenty to learn: Java programming, physics, math, teamwork, problem solving, communication, modern electronics, just to name a few. What’s not to like?
Well, it is a little disconcerting to see how much things cost. At the First Tech Challenge level, where my younger son will likely participate, a single robot basic kit is $580.00. An expansion set is another $280. As a lone homeschooler, these things add up. For many people, they add up to more than their entire homeschool budget for the year. But this is the team price, not the price per team member. Still, there are sure to be expenses, like with any team.
Why is it, then, that at these Java robotics tutorials, every mom I meet is a homeschool mom? Maybe because homeschool and competitive sports are good partners. With homeschool you can devote the amount of time it takes to do something well, and not feel like you are shortchanging another subject. Your schedule is flexible, so you can adapt to a rigid timetable set by others.
Still how do they do it, financially? It sounds impossible. It sounds as if there is no way that every child can learn to build a robot.
Leaping Into the Void
Well, amazingly, businesses have come out of the woodwork to help. Teams have sponsors, just as they do in baseball or gymnastics. Businesses have an interest in ratcheting up the tech abilities of the coming generation. In a few years, there will be jobs in robotics, and we will need people to fill them. People who can hit the ground running. People who have had exposure to robotics, as kids.
Not only business, but schools districts and private philanthropists have stepped up to the plate and donated or granted money to these programs. Under these circumstances, children do have a chance to learn these skills.
Find a Team!
If you or someone in your family wants to join a robotics team I encourage you to try. It’s worth it to see the glow in their eyes when they realize they just made a robot move. But the real payoff may be down the road in better jobs and more prosperity for all. ( See Mark McCombs Tedx Talk.)