What do you get when you combine my ADHD son Clark with 750 screaming teenagers, 65 robots and 10 pounds of face paint?
The 2010 F.I.R.S.T. Robotics Competition, Lone Star Regional, held at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, Texas. FIRST — “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology” — and BEST — “Boosting Engineering Science & Technology” — hold multi-week competitions annually. Teams all over the country compete to the backdrop of pounding pop music, dancing the macarena between rounds.
Clark joined the Bellaire Robotics Club during his freshman year in high school. I wrote about Clark, ADHD, the pros/cons of computer gaming, and gaming-alternatives earlier this week in Pre-Palooza. With his ADHD tendency toward injury — such as when he broke his arm by sticking it through the moving parts of an elliptical, or the time he ended up with a face full of stitches after accidentally hitting himself in the face with a Louisville Slugger — we were concerned. Robotics involves blades, electricity, and moving parts. So far, so good, though. And the caliber of kids he is around? Amazing. These kids are budding rocket scientists, seriously.
Sponsors from the biggest companies in the world vie to get their names in front of this brain trust of future science, engineering and technology superstars. Let me assure you that BP and The Wood Group Engineering do not sponsor our daughters’ swim meets! I think the message is clear: they want to hire these kids some day. Even the lead-off speakers signal these students’ potential. In March, the Governor of Texas opened the program. In April, the head of NASA in Houston spoke to start the festivities. Both events play on cable channels.
The Lone Star Regional boasted 65 teams, from as far away as Laredo, all the way to Louisiana. And oh what teams they were: Iron Plaid, Gatorzillas, Kryptonite, Texas Torque, Robatos Locos, Discobots, Clark’s own Bellaire High School Scitobors, and the Finger Puppet Mafia, to name a few. The screams of crazed kids filled the air. Teams competed not just for robotics awards, but for pride. Some of the costumes rivaled Hollywood movie wardrobes. Imagine the scene: sparkly disco capes, green spiked mohawks, gatorzillas, and my personal favorite, the kid in the giant robot costume pictured in this blog. Even the sponsors decked out in team wear. Our Bellaire team was one of the smallest groups, and our kids restrained themselves a bit more than others, but Clark face-painted with the best of them.
For this competition, the teams built robots to do several tasks. 1) score soccer goals 2) overcome bumps on the fields and 3) suspend themselves on towers. Each team has at least one adult to coach and assist, but the kids perform the bulk of the work. They build their robots under weight constraints and a set universe of parts to choose from. They must strategize which tasks they believe they can accomplish to score the most points and incur the least penalties. Most robots cannot make weight limit and do all 3 tasks well, so the teams specialize in 1 or 2.
Clark’s team did not make finals, which bummed them a little, but they improved with each round. They modified their robot to eliminate penalties and to increase their goal scoring opportunities. Team Captain Matt ran the group like a well-oiled machine. Clark drove the robot and — break away from those gender stereotypes here — his female team member ran the electronics through a laptop. Other team members cheered them on and helped with modifications.
Watching my ADHD son through this robotics season, I have appreciated the gaming aspect of learning to drive and compete with the robot. This is real life though, with a physical machine, live team mates to work with, and a cheering crowd of humans. He has to get his hands dirty on the tools between rounds, and if he doesn’t remember to wear his safety glasses, he can hurt his eyes. He must interact with team members effectively to lobby for his strategy and ideas, and for them to convey the same to him about his driving. He can put his hands on the computers he so dearly loves — there is a lot of programming involved, but he also has to apply his thinking in pure mechanics. They cut metal, they bolt, they tighten screws, they run wiring, and they build a machine from the ground-up which rolls around a field at high speeds running over obstacles and kicking soccer balls. He paints his face and gets excited about a team project.
Certainly, the medication helps. On the days he sneaks off without it, he does not perform as well. He knows though that his team counts on him, and he does not even try to skip meds on robotics days. The difference this activity has made in him is astounding.
I’ll admit, I shook pom pons as a cheerleader and ran track when I was his age. I didn’t “get it” about robotics at first. I worried that my son, who already faced frustrations and challenges I did not fully understand, would doom himself to becoming the biggest dork at his high school. I could not have been more wrong. Pre-medication and pre-robotics, Clark never got in the game, whether in lacrosse, school, or social interactions. Now, he’s in the thick of it, with a bunch of super-smart, super-cool friends who treat him with respect.
Clark-a-palooza 2010. Go Clark. Go Bellaire Scitobors.
p.s. Thanks to Joe Sherwood, teacher at Bellaire High School, for sponsoring our kids.