Conned into building another robot


When you're a teacher, it's kind of expected that you sponsor some type of extracurricular. You can run the chess club, cooking club, guitar club, or even something like a Wii bowling league. Last year I did chess club and the year before that I co-sponsored Science Bowl (a kind of quiz show competition with a project component (we made a hydrogen fuel cell race car)).

When I taught in Texas, I taught a robotics class and sponsored our high school's team in the Best Robotics competition. The kids in the blue shirts are two of my students at the national championships ( For me, it was a living hell that was incredibly rewarding. I was putting in 80 hour weeks (minimum) and letting my daily work suffer to put in the hours and effort necessary to succeed. I couldn't even complain, the students were putting in the hours too. If they had quit robotics and got a shitty part time job instead, they could've each bought a cheap used car. I don't get paid overtime, they don't get paid at all. It's fair, I guess. The problem is: I've got a family and am a homeowner. If you're putting in 80+ hours a week, you're not getting a whole lot of other shit done.

When my son was about 2 ½, he stopped calling me Daddy. We had made the national championships and were putting in a lot of hours on the robot. When my son woke up, I was already at work. When my son went to sleep, I wasn't home yet. On the weekends, I was either at work supervising students working on the robot while I graded papers or unconscious. Six weeks of not seeing daddy is a long time for a toddler.

After doing robotics for a few years my wife said You're not doing robotics again, right?

My boss had mentioned that he might actually give me a proper stipend for it so I replied I don't know, I haven't decided.

She said, No, I wasn't asking you. I was telling you that you're not doing it. I already have decided. But then she corrected herself, Or I guess I should say that it'll cause problems in our marriage if you do.

I told my boss to piss up a rope and quit robotics (for the next school year) and told him if it was a problem he could let me out of my contract and I'd go teach AP/IB Physics for somebody else. After all, a dumbass who's willing to teach a college class for high school teacher pay to replace me should be easy, right?

I'm teaching middle school here in Vegas now. I told the above story to co-workers (and principal) at lunch. The next day my boss called me in her office and asked me if I'd sponsor a robotics club for the school. Jamey... you were there, right? You were actually listening to the context of the story, right? What about that story made you think I'd want to do it again? 'Woo-hoo, everything is going great in my marriage. What can I do to mess it up?' Hell, I can hardly get my papers graded on time right now.

She explained to me that the middle school level robotics wasn't as time and labor intensive as the high school versions. She wanted me to sponsor a team in the First Lego League. You use the Lego Mindstorm robot system to compete in a game. Your team also has to do a research project and give a presentation to a panel of judges. It would require one 8-5 Saturday for the tournament and staying after school to supervise the club meetings. I'd also be the team's coach. I told her I'd think about it, intending to blow it off. Fuck that. I'll do chess club again. The kids loved it when I coached the chess team last year. I had one kid that actually got me to a stalemate twice. Kids were betting that he'd actually beat me this year.

That same day, I had kids totally getting up my ass about the robotics team.

Mr. L., Mr. L., are you really going to coach a robotics team?

Mr. L., Mr. L., what do I have to do to get on the robotics team?

Mr. L., Mr. L., do you get to make the robots fight?

My boss had totally torpedoed me by starting the rumor that I'd be doing it and that it'd be the coolest thing ever. She completely had me by the balls. There was nothing I could do. I agreed. At least I get a $50/month stipend. Turns out, that comes out to about $.80/hour.

We had a ton of problems since it was our first year. The kit, the massive game board, the robot, the registration, and the software came out to just over a thousand dollars. The school gets to keep it all, of course. The only money that you've got nothing to show for is the $150 registration. My school is so small and rural that we don't do purchase orders. Our credit card can't be used for amounts over a thousand dollars and Lego wouldn't split my bill up into two parts. We had to wait for our check to clear before they'd ship out kit. Well... our state budget is a little wonky, so we got our kit a month after everybody else. It's a two month, timed construction period from the first of October until December 4th. We got our kit on November 3rd. We've also got an atomic assload of staff development days in November where the kids don't show up. There's also the holidays we're off. So it was impossible to get a lot of hours in with the kids. I'm not really supposed to do anything but advise, organize, and be a facilitator on the project. They've got to do everything.

When we got our kit, I was agape at the volume of Legos. There were mountains of pieces and they seemed to multiply nightly. I opened the kits with the team. I looked at the pile of bagged up plastic pieces and said Oh my God... look at all the Legos...

Simultaneously, every kid on the team pumped their fists in the air and yelled OH MY GOD! LOOK AT ALL THE LEGOS!

Same words... different translation.

We were not ready for yesterday's competition. There were 25 different ways for the robot to score points. We could reliably do 4. We could get another 4 on occasion with multiple restarts of the robot. Several I considered impossible as I couldn't easily complete the task using both hands. How the fuck would a robot pull it off? Our research project was pretty damn good considering we had nothing else to work on for a month. But it was the robot game that everybody would be watching. Total robot failure in front of a giant auditorium of parents and strangers would be devastating. There's a huge projector putting up all of the scores of all of the teams. How would you like to be the kids listed 32nd out of 32 teams with big goose eggs at the end of every round?

I get away with a lot of shit at work because my boss constantly gets phone calls about how their kid finally likes science and my school has literally the highest science test scores in a district of 350,000 students. That'll get you a lot of slack cut your way. If my boss gets a single phone call from a crying parent about how I fucked up their kid's childhood by them being humiliated in public and it's my fault that they're going to be a serial killer... and a lot of that slack may disappear.

I don't think I've mentioned that the robot is autonomous. That means that you don't drive it or control it by remote. You program it to run itself. You've got an ultrasound emitter so the robot can echo-locate like a bat. A light sensor, a color sensor, a pressure sensor, a sound sensor, and several motors that you attach. You tell it to go somewhere, use a sensor to look for something, then tell it what to do when it's detected, etc. (here's a random news story about last year's competition I found:

When I got to the competition, there were two presentations that I knew nothing about and we hadn't prepared for. The first was the Technical Specifications Presentation and the second one was the Core Values Presentation. I was pissed. I stomped up to the tournament director: Hey, where in my documentation did it tell me to prepare for these? Am I supposed to walk in there and say 'Derp, we didn't do this part, derp' or do I walk in ten junior high students and tell them to improvise?

He basically told me to chill the fuck out and that it wasn't necessary to prepare for them. The Tech Spec was questions about our construction process and the Core Values thing was always a secret. Only one coach and the whole team could enter the room, no parents were allowed to watch, and the coach couldn't communicate with the team in any way.

The Tech Spec the turned out to be an insidious interrogation of the kids. It was done under the facade of good natured interest: Hey, that's neat, who's idea was that? How did you program the robot to do that? Which parts did your coach put on the robot? These guys reallllly checked up on everything to make sure it was the kids that did the work.

The Core Values thing was a teamwork exercise. They got five minutes from the time they walked through the door to read a page of instructions, ask questions, complete the task, and clean up. They had four decks of card, an assload of large black binder clips, and a softball. The challenge was to build a tower and put the softball on top without collapsing the tower. In less than three minutes my students had the tallest tower. Second place was 1/3 as tall.

In our first year, we placed a respectable 8th out of 32 teams in the robot game and 1st in the teamwork challenge. We've got this cool trophy that's made out of legos to put in our trophy cabinet. The tourney was a total success. Kids were fired up, parents mollified, and I'll have another feather in my cap to use to offset some bullshit paperwork that I forgot to submit on time. Fuck TPS reports in the ass.

Uploaded 12/06/2010
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