Introducing your New FLL Assistant Coach

( Intro to the Best Boxing Movie of All Time  )

Introducing first, our new Assistant Head Coach in the red corner.  He hails from the mean streets on the northern shores of Chicago and is rated by many as one of the best pound for pound poets and puppeteers of the last decade to hail from the Windy City.  With 52 wins, 38 of them coming by the way of knockout, and only 4 defeats. he is, the former middleweight champion, former, super middle weight champioin, former light heavyweight champion, and former HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION BON-MOT OF GAMBIER VILLAGE.

Version 2.0 of the Gambier GigaFlops is rapidly taking form. When I registered our team on September 29th last year I made my first post to this blog on the same day to start documenting our rookie season.  The hope was that it will serve as a guide and template for future rookie FLL teams/coaches locally and beyond.  We are now 120 posts later (plus 30 in draft form) and have succeeded by virtually every metric I had laid out last August when I started recruiting.

In the last three weeks since our State Championship, we’ve completed my original goal of spinning out another FLL team as well as finding local financial support and a non-profit home base.  Our old Assistant Coach Jason Hughes will lead that effort as the Head Coach of a new FLL team he will start within the Knox County 4H meeting at the SPIspot downtown.  They will enjoy the volunteer and financial support of the Ariel Corporation and the Ariel Foundation.

I will continue to lead and principally finance our original Gambier GigaFlops team as a community-based organization.  In the past few weeks, we have acquired two new team members, an Assistant Coach and a new Global Outreach focus.  Mr. Phil Brooks will join our FLL team as our new Assistant Coach starting this Spring when we begin training at our new multimillion dollar high-altitude Olympic-class facility in Gambier.  In addition, his son Felix Brooks-Quijada will join the Gambier GigaFlops as will Jean-Pierre who will travel between the US and Costa Rica starting with our Spring/Summer training hopefully.

With these off-season acquisitions, our team takes on a distinct International and Latin flavor which opens new opportunities for everyone which I’ll detail in future blog posts here.

( Be warned, Coach Brooks Demands 110% Effort )

Academic Cross Training for Peak Performance

cross_training_sched

Cross training is when an athlete trains in multiple sports (or exercises) in addition to the one they primarily compete it.  The idea is that different activities will develop specific skills better than the just training in one main competitive sport.  A good example is mixed martial arts where many top competitors train in a grappling art (eg wrestling), a striking art (eg karate) and other supplementary sports for endurance (eg running), strength (eg weight lifting), hand speed (eg boxing), etc.

mixed-martial-arts-training-conditioning1


In parallel to starting our FIRST LEGO League team this year, I’m also in my 5th year of coaching Destination Imagination (formerly known as Odyssey of the Mind).  For the first time this year I’m coaching two teams at the same time, a Varsity team that graduates into middle school next year and a younger Jr. Varsity team.  We even have a DI team blog much like this for FLL at wigginsstreetdi.wordpress.com with an overview of our season so far.

destination_imagination

Destination Imagination (DI) is a parallel enrichment program much like FLL.  Both heavily emphasize teamwork and have instant challenges, but DI focuses more on the arts and creativity.  Although there are STEM options in DI, in the past we (and most other teams) have chosen creative projects like plays, documentary films and community service projects.  For the past two years we have elected to compete in the Improv challenge.

Muscles-onlyThis year our team will be given 4 improv elements:  (1) a location, (2) a conflict, (3) a theme (eg game show, infomercial) and (4) a street performance type (eg mime, acrobatics).  This is not pure Improv because our team is given one minute to rough out a 2 minute sketch incorporating all 4 improv elements which they perform immediately after the one minute is up.  This year our team will given 3 different sets of the 4 improv elements and asked to create (1min) and perform (2min) all three skits in rapid succession.  In this way our team learns to master a very compressed form of story telling (character, setting, conflict, plot and theme) that emphasizes spontaneity and quick thinking on one’s feet.

In our first year of graded competition we were narrowly beaten by a veteran team that had gone to Globals the year prior with the same project.  Last year we won and advanced to the State Championship.  This year we hope to maintain or even improve our performance although it’s impossible to predict with Improv since we can’t plan out our performance in advance.  This is what makes Improv both terrifying, exciting and a better skill for real life than acting which depends more upon memorized lines in a fixed play format.


Over half our rookie FLL team this year are also members of my Destination Imagination team.  One of the things that helped us win the EPIC trophy at the FLL State Tournament was the creativity, spontaneity, teamwork and presentation skills that most of our team has been working on in DI for up to 5 years now (conga line anyone?).

Great technical skills without good communication skills are very self-limiting as are good communication skills without much interesting to communicate.  While FLL does a good job in emphasizing both, take whatever opportunities you have (like DI) to develop into a fuller and more interesting person.

interpersonal

Gambier GigaFlops Globalization Outreach

 Tenorio Waterfall, Costa Rica( not a Honey Run Waterfall, Knox County, OH )

Just as we live in an increasingly technological world we also live in an increasingly globalized world.  Just as becoming technologically knowledgeable has become a key asset to opening doors of opportunity, so too has international awareness, experience and friendships.  Some of my most invaluable personal experiences were while living abroad.  In Latin America, I’ve had the good fortune to live/work/study/travel in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Guatemala and Brazil.

GambierGigaFlops has a unique opportunity to add another talented member to our team and/or mentor the founding of a new FIRST LEGO League team in Costa Rica depending upon what FLL rules will allow.  Jean-Pierre and his family are Americans who currently live in Costa Rica for business reasons, but have family in Gambier (which is how we met).  He is bilingual in Spanish and English and is very interesting in FIRST LEGO League.

st-jude-logo1Jean-Pierre travels back to the US at least every 6 months for treatment for an inoperable brain tumor, and his father travels even more frequently for business reasons.  He and his parents have raised over a million dollars throughout the United States from California to Florida as spokespersons for St. Judes Children’s Research Hospital.

Unfortunately, Jean-Pierre lives far from the capital of San Jose (25% of the population) and there is currently no existing local opportunities for him to participate in FLL in Costa Rica.  The entire country of Costa Rica appears to have a smaller FLL participation level such that no teams from the country were invited to participate in Globals this year.

Our goal is to help Jean-Pierre learn with us this summer and coming fall/winter FLL season so he can start his own FLL team in Costa Rica next year.  It would be our mutual goal to see Jean-Pierre lead a competitive Costa Rican team to Globals in 2016 and thereafter lead the formation of a vibrant network of Costa Rican FLL teams in his local community.

Ideally, we’d like to raise corporate funds to sponsor Gambier GigaFlops and Jean-Pierre to lead summer or winter break training camps in Costa Rica.  Due to the timing of the coffee harvest, Costa Rica has it’s main academic holiday during our winter season although there is also sometimes a shorter summer holiday period.

In doing research into this possibility I discovered that last year (June 2014) an older FRC Team (and former FLL team) called Robot Springboard from Pennsylvania has did something similar last year.  They traveled to Costa Rica with at least partial corporate sponsorship (Intel which has a corporate headquarters there) to hold two FIRST LEGO League summer camps in a different part of Costa Rica.  The girls appear to have since continued their good work by focusing on teaching girls STEM via summer camps at Drexel University in PA.

costarica_canopy_walk_med_hrSome interesting facts about Costa Rica (possibly relevant to this year’s FLL Eco-Project):

* One of the smallest non-island countries in Latin America (4.8 million)

* One of only 3 non-island countries without a standing military (since 1949)

* Ranks as one of the highest Latin American Countries in the Human Development Index

* Is the only country to meet all five UN criteria for environmental sustainability

* It is one of the worlds top destinations for eco-tourism

* Is targeting to become the first carbon-neutral country by 2021

* Ranked one of the safest country in Latin America

* One of the highest literacy rates in Latin America at 96.3%

* Has one of the largest overseas American retirement communities

Costa Rica Invest - Why Costa Rica - Map (1) Costa Rica Invest - Why Costa Rica - Map (2)


I have been working with Jean-Pierre and his father to explain our FLL season and design a remote training facility for him in Costa Rica.  Our plan is to collaborate over Skype/Facetime as well as coordinate his visits to the US with our summer game programming camp and tournaments.  Ideally, he will have the same robot competition table and identically constructed robot to learn along with the rest of our kids thanks to support from his family.

If FLL allows Jean-Pierre to become a formal member of our team, he would fly out a week in advance of our tournaments to meet everyone on our team personally and we would focus on team-building exercises in the run-up to our tournament(s).

Here is a preliminary budget for setting up a minimal satellite FLL development workshop for Jean-Pierre in Costa Rica (approximately $1100 + laptop).

* 8′ x 4′ competition table ($60)

* Field Kit (mat and mission pieces) ($75 w/$300 team registration or $300 eBay)

* eV3 Core Set ($350)

* eV3 Expansion Set ($99)

* eV3 Extra Large Motor ($25)

* eV3 Extra Color Sensor ($36)

* BrickLink Parts ($200)

* Laptop (Recommend Windows 7, but others OK – requirements)

I’m looking forward towards the opportunity for both Jean-Pierre and our returning kids to expand their horizons both technologically and culturally.  Be prepared to learn un poco español this year and how to electronically collaborate across cultures and long distances in our shrinking world.

The Future of FIRST LEGO League in Our Community

yeast_buddingLast December, Assistant Coach Jason expressed the desire to start his own team.  This will help us:

* bring the team down to a more manageable size

* allow more kids to work on the Project and Robot (ideally 2 kids/robot)

* correct some of the major learning obstacles of our first season

* train up more Assistant Coaches to disseminate FIRST LEGO League teams locally

Between us, Jason currently has one eV3 kit and I have two eV3 kits with which to seed new teams.  With 2 or 3 kids per robot and 2 or 3 kids per project, that currently allows us to field two FLL teams of up to 4-6 kids (Jason) and 6-9 kids (Jon).  I’ve purchased materials and built a new portable competition robot board and Jason took the old one.

I will continue with the community-based Gambier GigaFlops FFL team #13840 that I founded this year.  Jason will spin off a new FFL team within a new 4H club called the Knox County Robotics Club.

Our team recruited for new 4H members at our recent STEMfest exhibition, and Jason said he may have more interested kids.  Jason and I have met with the Arial Foundation and 4H to raise funds and we should hear soon the outcome of those meetings.  If Arial funds the 4H Club, Jason’s team will probably regularly teach LEGOs with at the local SPISpot downtown.  My Gambier GigaFlops team will focus our efforts on a Global Outreach effort to Costa Rica in Central America.

Current team members can choose to join either my existing Gambier GigaFlops FLL team (Beckett and Mateo) or Jason’s new 4H Knox County Robotics Club (Makenna and Spencer).  Both teams should be comparably priced and will meet and train separately starting as soon as this Spring.  Jason’s 4H team will either meet at the 4H/OSU Extension Office behind Columbia Elementary or at the 4H building across from KFC.  My Gambier GigaFlops team will meet either at my house or nearby.

We’ll both register our teams this August when FIRST LEGO League registration opens for the new season.  I am hoping that with several robots, off-season training/preparation and a better organized and more efficient use of our meeting time we can generally limit our team meetings to only one 2 hour meeting per week during the fall/winter FLL season.

 

Pneumatics – the 4th Utility

FIRST LEGO League is all about learning as reflected in the Core Value “what we learn is more important than what we win”.

In this spirit, I’ve gone ahead and ordered another LEGO Education Pneumatic kit (add-on kit #9641) in addition to the one I purchased early in our season.  Although our rookie season was a bit of a blur, my hope is that this year we can master pneumatics and incorporate one or two pneumatic-powered solutions into our robot challenge this fall.

LEGO_9641_prod_08

Pneumatics is the “study and application of pressurized gas to produce mechanical motion.”  Most people usually don’t directly encounter pneumatic-powered systems outside a dentist drill or message delivery tubes at banks.  Yet in Europe it is known as the fourth utility (after electricity, gas and water) with 10% of all industrial energy (80 terawatts) used to produce compressed air.

LEGO V8 Pneumatic Powered Engine

(probably not the most efficient design for a pneumatic engine)

While rapid innovation in electronics and control systems appear to be gaining market share, pneumatics powered devices offer some unique benefits:  (1) Simplicity (standard tanks and on/off control), (2) Reliability (better shock resistance  and independent of power grid) and (3) Safety (low/no chance of spark, fire or explosion such as in mining).  In fact, some companies are looking to create environmentally more friendly automobiles powered by compressed air.

Peugeot Citroen show off their hybrid air vehicle


 

This fall we considered using the pneumatic tank to launch the soccer ball into the net.  As it turned out, over the course of our tournaments we saw a few, usually advanced, teams use pneumatics.  Far more teams seemed to use a simple rubber band powered mechanism for the Soccer Mission (FlopBotZilla) or a dedicated armature motor (FlopBot).  The rubber band mechanism was a more elegant solution in terms of costs/parts and leaving more flexibility for use of the motorized armature, but reliability depended greatly upon mechanism design.

However, here is an elegant solution using pneumatics to solve a FLL mission from 2008.  Climate Connections Missions completed:  bike, laptop, insulation, open windows, turn off lights, raise house:

Pneumatics is simply one of the many potential power sources we discussed this season (electric/motor, mass in a gravitation field, deformation/compression of rubber bands/springs).  However, they have they introduce an interesting set of physics principles we can touch upon (Ideal Gas Law, Thermodynamics).  Let’s hope this fall we’ll see a mission that lends itself to a natural solution via pneumatics.

 

 

 

Diversity in STEM

I lived, studied and worked in the heart of global technology innovation for 20 years including Berkeley, Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Emeryville, California.  Silicon Valley and the Bay Area in general is one of the most diverse, high skilled and innovative metro areas in the world.

Silicon-Valley-SF-Bay-Area-scale-high-detail-mapThe tech world in the Bay Area reflects this diversity.  My last startup there consisted of East Asians, Indians, Parsis, Middle Easterners and Jewish developers from the former Soviet Union.  Of the top dozen technical hires and 3 founders only 3 were native-born non-minorities.  My two co-founders were born in the US but were both also minorities with a least one parent born abroad (Taiwan and Iran) and our other team lead’s father was Egyptian.

However, diversity in the highly competitive Silicon Valley startup world was of a particular type.  While we had 3 women in our company, only one worked in a purely technical role.  We also only had one Hispanic and one African-American STEM employees over the course of our 3 years of operation before acquisition.  This was significantly higher than the average I suspect since it clearly represented higher averages than what we saw in the resumes we received from job postings on Craig’s List.  Since we operated in the wake of the Dot Com Bubble Collapse it was not unusual for us to get 80-100 resumes per tech job posting, virtually none of them were from women or under represented minorities.


One of the biggest drives in STEM education today is to diversity it’s appeal and participation rates among traditionally under represented groups.  You can’t hire many women and under represented minorities into STEM fields if they are not passionate about studying these subjects in numbers from an early age given the reality of attrition in STEM in general.

STEM_pipelineSTEM Winnowing and STEMConnector’s Solution

Depending upon the field of study, these disparities vary from slight (as of 2013-2014 47% of medical school students are female) to very significant (PhD in theoretical physics and pure math).  The disparity levels generally increase with age, degree level and career level correlating with nearly everything from elite STEM school admissions, seniority, published research, salary, patents, startups, tenure as a professor, etc.

However, the outlook for women in education in general is promising as are the trends in STEM.  Women across all races now earn more college degrees than men.  For years now women have also outpaced men in earning advanced degrees including PhD across all subjects.  The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics show that men have a consistently higher unemployment rate than women.  In fact, men are doing so much worse on so many metrics from Japan to the U.K. that the issue of a male crisis in education and dropping out of society entirely has arisen recently.

Despite the better statistics for women in education and work on average, women are still underrepresented at the top levels.  Also, STEM is a major area of increasing importance where women are noticeably under represented in Engineering and Computer Science.  Even in STEM there is good news is that women dominate or are at rough parity in STEM fields like Social Sciences, Math and the Natural Sciences.

women_collegeWomen Outpacing Men in College Education

 

percent-bachelors-degrees-women-usaRapid Rise of Women in All Areas of Education, including STEM Fields

Women_In_StemWomen Approaching Parity or Better in all STEM Fields but CS and Engineering

One great things about FIRST LEGO League is how it encourages participation from as wide a pool of students as possible.  I estimate that we’ve seen about 40% women and minority participation at our 3 tournaments this season.  For an STEM program centered around computer science and engineering these are extremely high participation rates.

While people discuss the various obstacles that may be limit women and under-represented minorities participation in STEM (hostile culture, lack of mentors, etc), programs like FLL address the problem at the root.  To have more women and under represented minorities in STEM we need programs like FLL to spark kids curiosity and fill the STEM pipeline as early as possible.

The Centrality of Math

math_league

It’s been called the “Queen of the Sciences” but many prefer to view math as more of a liberal art than a STEM subject even through the “M” in STEM stands for Mathematics.

In FIRST LEGO League this year we saw a number of simple and complex applications and potential applications of math including:  calculating circumferences from radii, linear distance traveled as a function of angular wheel rotation, proportional line following, calculating rotational angle based upon single or dual motor angular wheel rotation, estimating E-W alignment with the Robot Arm Mission based upon differential left and right color sensor readings of the slanted green line, etc.

A great part of the math learned in FIRST LEGO League is how we could experiment with, quantify and physically measure the abstract math concepts we were using.  For example, early in the season we began with an AA Alkaline powered NXT robot but switched to a NiMH rechargeable pack powered eV3 robot.  Our countless trail runs and experimentation gave a physical reality to the graph below when it came to the robot power output, speed, turning and linear travel distance.  Understanding this concept and adopting technology with a better power output curve led us to a more accurate and reliable robot performance.

nimh_vs_alkalineThere is the potential for a wide variety of applications of math to the study of this year’s FLL Challenge Trash Trek:  economic analysis, energy flow modeling, optimization of transport and logistics, etc.  We are only limited by our imagination and mathematical abilities and interests.

I’ve been advocating for starting Math League in the local schools for several years now and led a group at a local private school last year when my oldest was first eligible in 4th grade.  It’s was difficult with the recent introduction of Common Core and greater emphasis on testing like the PARCC exam to not view Math League as yet another competing claim on limited class time.

Fortunately, Math League is more complimentary than competitive with the Common Core as content is entirely grade-level appropriate and practice is done outside class time.  Although it is a multiple choice exam, the Math League exam emphasize analytical skills needed to solve some of the more difficult multi-part style PARCC math questions (minus the large expository writing).

Math League is one of the largest math competitions for kids as young as 4th grade and is designed to spark kids interest in math and quantitative problem solving.  Kids take a 30 question exam around March or April.  Several months prior they systematically review questions from exams of previous years in a group setting to prepare.

To allow all kids to demonstrate some mastery, questions are divided into 10 easy, 10 middle and 10 hard questions.  Sixth grade kids and older with top scores are given an invitation to a gifted summer math program hosted by Stanford University.  An interesting and more elaborate math competition called MathCounts consists of a number of individual and team math contests competing in tournaments up through the national level.

mathletic_dept

Because FIRST LEGO League was so demanding and ran 3 months longer than we initially anticipated, I wasn’t able to volunteer with the Math League group from last year.  However, I have been able to help with another group briefly due to an unexpected absence.  Although it’s a bit of a self-selected group, it is still good to see kids get excited about math.


Although I didn’t major in math I’ve always admired the power and beauty in it.  With just the fundamentals of math, one can begin to see beyond the immediate to grasp a logic, order and eternal nature to all existence (or proposed existence).  To be unable to perceive the world in mathematical terms would be like seeing the world without color or even vision itself.  Life would be a drastically impoverished experience if we had no mathematical intuition to view and understand the world around us.

( View in Full Screen Mode for Full Effect )

A good analogy of expressive power of math would be with the power of good writing and speaking.  Although it seems natural that writing and speaking are more fundamental to human perception and needs, technological progress is rapidly elevating the value of quantitative skills like math.  Even jobs that were not quantitative a generation ago, are rapidly becoming so (eg marketing and medicine via big data analysis).  When employers say schools are not graduating students prepared for today’s work force, they are often critiquing quantitative skills as much as verbal skills.

Both language and math rely upon foundations that will either open up opportunities or foreclose them.  Native language acquisition seems a more innate human aptitude.  It appears more flexible in terms of things like the correlation between adult proficiency and the age of first reading (e.g. Finland).  On the other hand, Math seems less innate, cumulative and influenced by early exposure like learning a foreign language or perfect pitch in music.

As Barbie maladroitly said, “Math is hard”, but Ken could’ve said it as well.  Math can be incredibly hard for anyone who ventures far enough into the deep end of pool.  One of the hardest aspects of math to reconcile with our modern Western conception of humanity is how math quantifies us, reduces us to a number and clearly defines our cognitive limits with unforgiving logic.  It seems to deny our uniqueness, ignore the subtleties of beauty beyond the obvious facts and leave no room for interpretation or intangibles.

In contemporary America, we are particularly ill-equipped to deal with the blindingly harsh and unambiguous judgements a field like math imposes. However, a scientist and engineer (and increasingly everyone in our technology driven society) absolutely need clear-eyed humility in the midst of this cultural age of hubris.

The good news is that the most interesting and broadly useful aspects of math are the lowest hanging fruit.  Even with probability and statistics and the simple math underpinning it one can immensely improve their lives with everything from school choice to auto insurance.  A simple undergraduate program that covers math for scientist and engineers would probably equip graduates with the math chops to tackle 98% of the high-demand and high-paying knowledge jobs in our economy from economics to programming to medical research.

Just because one cannot create beautiful poetry, music or mathematics does not preclude one from exploiting the benefits and gaining enrichment from those who can.  Although it helps, most people who use advanced statistical analysis in software packages to measure the efficacy of a medical trail or financial models could not derive models from first principles yet they are able to produce valuable results.

Learn as much math as your interests and abilities take you and enjoy the experience.  Like music, I’ve never met an anyone who regretted learning too much math – quite the converse.  Go math.

math_counts_wave_poster-rcb2ec6df32d14bbb8d8a6f6bfa67d8e6_kn8s_8byvr_512

Changing the Culture Around STEM Education

Print STEMfest_Knox_2015maker.faire.logo

There are a wide number of movements afoot to promote STEM education.  Programs we have participated in this year like FIRST LEGO League, COSI MakerFaire and STEMfest! are just a few of many different approaches to broaden the reach and appeal of STEM.  For a yardstick on this movement, here is a list of about 100 summer K-8 STEM programs at colleges and universities around the country.

Here is my impromptu best of breed traits I’ve seen in STEM programs and based upon my own career in STEM.  Not every STEM program can incorporate all these elements and to do so would probably be prohibitively expensive on a mass scale.  Still, I’ll hold these up as the gold standard of what would result in the optimal STEM program.

Realistic – The problem addressed should be a real-world problem or as close to one as possible which naturally lends itself to a project-based learning approach.  A great example, is the FIRST LEGO League Research Project which gives kids a very loosely defined problem area (eg Education) and has them identify their real world problem, survey existing solutions and come up with their own innovative product or service.

Rigorous – While survey courses would be fine in small doses, STEM programs that offer to teach a subject in depth are essential to equip students to gain a deep understanding and functional knowledge of STEM.  Better to be able to program a simple 3D game or phone app than only have a 10,000 ft understanding of a more complex system that one can never realize.

Meaningful – It is harder to generate interest and elicit effort for abstract STEM exercises that lead nowhere.  STEM is very much a practical and results-driven broad field of study.  Much of the rewards of working in STEM is seeing your discovery or creation solving meaningful problems in the real-world and helping people.

Hands-On – Most STEM fields are very hands-on by nature outside of pure math and theoretical physics.  Also, learning by doing is the best mode for many kids to master most academic subjects.  There is also the added benefit of seeing a physical work product gradually take shape and arise out of an purely theoretical idea.

Competitive – Most of us respond better when there is something on the line – a grade, a test score, an award, etc.  Ideally, we would be purely motivated by internal criteria such as curiosity and innate drive but this is far less common than the boost provided by external social approval.

Inclusive – Just like not everyone will go on to become Tom Brady, not everyone will go onto to win a Nobel Prize in a STEM field.  FIRST LEGO League does a great job of generating interest and enthusiasm at all levels of ability and tournament competitions.  Teams are expected to demonstrate gracious professionalism and coopertition throughout their season and Judges walk the floor at tournaments to see how well teams are doing in promoting these values.  It’s a unique experience to see so many other teams and team members proactively reach out and try to help strangers during the season or at tournaments.  I’ve seen teams do outstanding on technical aspects like the robot competition fail to win or advance in tournaments because they are so narrowly focused on their own interests or the purely technical challenge.

Social/Fun – STEM fields can be pretty inhumane in both solitary practice how they tend reduce people into a single dimension rank-order quantity.  As someone once told me, it’s like your entire existence is reduced to simply putting your brain on scale.   FIRST LEGO League does a great job of synthesizing the spirit of competition and cooperation with their “gracious professionalism” and “coopertition” model where individuals and even teams work together like crazy against the problem, not against each other.

Affordable/Accessible – This is the one area where FIRST LEGO League poses a challenge.  It is difficult to promote all the benefits of FLL without significant community support in terms of both financial and volunteerism.


little_stingers_wrestlingOur rural area does a great job in promoting and developing sports for the kids in our community.  I’ve volunteered as a T-ball coach, soccer coach, basketball coach and wrestling coach over the years here and have been impressed by how well the systems provide kids the opportunity to learn, participate and have fun at an early age.  I’ve often thought of how we could take the best of these sports models and apply them to academics.

In particular, the Little Stingers Wrestling program was specifically designed to cultivate interest and ability in kids as young as 5 years old.  Part of the motivation behind starting this youth program was to create a pipeline of talent for the older Killer Bees Wresting Club and High School Wresting Teams.  There is a strong support for the program and the kids compete like mad at all levels.  The older kids help coach the younger ones and are looked up to as role models.  We even had a local Mt. Vernon girl who now trains with the US Olympic team come back to talk and inspire the kids.

jobs_iphone_webSteve Jobs Introduces the iPhonerussian_propagandaAnonymous Worker Celebrating an Abundant Grain Harvest

Which of the Two Posters Connects and Inspires You More ?

Humans are aspirational creates.  It is our nature to see out excellence, admire the unbreakable human spirit, create heroes and even emulate them as best we can.  We don’t respond well en mass to ideas in the abstract, but rather gravitate to individuals to represent the embodiment of what we value:  Warren Buffet, Steve Jobs, Tom Brady, or even Kim Kardashien (I hope I mispelt that).  The Soviet Union utterly failed to inspire anyone by prizing production quotas or mythologizing the anonymous laborer who is replaceable as any widget.

rude-tween-horizontal-large-galleryAnother key factor in successfully elevating the profile of STEM in particular and academics in general in our community is to engage kids before the difficult tween years after which doing well or being interested in school can become stigmatized.  Like Little Stingers, we should strive to create as broad-based pipeline of STEM talent as early as possible that will graduate on to redefine our academic culture and erase negative stereotypes around STEM.

For example, before I founded our team this year I had several promising candidates whose profiles seemed an ideal match for our inaugural FIRST LEGO League season in the form of a math, a chemistry and a physics professors’ sons.  Not only did they not show the slightest interests, but some even seemed repulsed by the idea of doing something “nerdy” which, as smart kids, was a label they were already actively trying hard to resist.

It’s time to redefine our culture around STEM and promote excellence in academics like we do in sports.

 

 

Ohio State Championship Tournament – Photo Essay

Snaps from our State Tournament at Wright State University in Dayton:

Team_and_Mascot_webGambier GigaFlops ( + Lucky Mascot) in Formation

Registration_webRegistration

Team_webGambier GigaFlops Lineup

 

Programming_webDavid and Solvi Working Late the Night Before Competition

     Hotel_Hack_webThe n-th Trail Run on the Robot Arm Mission

Hotel_Looks_Good_on_Paper_webEverything Looks Good for a Personal Best (on Paper)

Hotel_Robot_Arm_webThe Team Solves the Robot Arm (in the Hotel Room)

Project_webJudging Room Presentations Go Very Well

Stir_Crazy_webExcess Energy the Night Before the Robot Competition

Projects_web

The Competition Floor

Devin_Jon_web        Devin and Jon Working the Floor

Robot_Rond2_Checkin_web  Registering for a Robot Round on the Table

Robot_Round1_webLet the Robot Games Begin !

Robot_Round2_webBlow by Blow Commentary by the MC at our Table

Robot_Round3_Judge_webConferring with the Table Judge

Robot_Round1_Jumbotron_webGambier GigaFlops on the Jumbotron

Robot_Trial1_Disappoint_webThe Best Laid Plans of Men

Robot_Alliance_webThe Very Fun 3-team Alliance Competition

Robot_Round3_webWe Still Love You FlopBotZilla

Leader_Board_webThe Bar is Set for Next Year

Brickheads_webBrickHeads Garner an Award

Closing_Nerves_web    Award Ceremony Nerves

Winners_Circle_webE.P.I.C. Trophy Winners

FLL_State_Team_webThe Official Trading Card Photo

Careers in STEM and Entrepreneurship

STEM_ENTREP_Scipreneur_LogoSTEM_ENTREP_stem_hexagonSTEM_ENTREP_Technovation

These logos help illustrate how STEM and Entrepreneurship have become two of the hottest topics associated with education recently.  As an scientist, engineer and entrepreneur I’ve been waiting to give my kids insights into these fields since the day my oldest was born in Berkeley, CA approximately a decade ago.  It’s been a long and restless wait with much money wasted on disappointing educational toys throughout the years.

However, STEM careers in general, and engineering in particular, aren’t suited for everyone.  For many STEM can seem intellectually limiting, socially stunting and emotionally sterile.  Indeed, at various points in my career I have encountered stagnant situations which made me feel STEM was an dead end.  Finally, for the talents and efforts required, STEM can also appear to be suboptimal life strategy given the comparative advantages of careers in medicine, law and business in terms of salary, security, prestige, procreation, etc.

The key factor for enjoying my career in STEM was if I was able to work on a creative solution I was passionate about.  When I was simply studying for an Electrical Engineering/Computer Science B.S., a Cognitive Science & Biomedical Engineering M.S. or a M.D. degree I was only mechanically going through the motions dictated by others.  Engineering in particular lacked the poetic beauty found the the more abstract fields of math and physics yet seemed relatively trivial and disconnected from solving sizable real-world problems compared to the fields of medicine, law and business.

feynman_surely ( An Inspiration for Potential STEMers )

But when I was stimulated by bright colleagues in rarefied environments like Silicon Valley, designing an early web-based electronic patient record system that could save millions of dollars or running full-tilt in a startup I was grateful for my broad STEM background and couldn’t learn enough.  Studying for artificial external rewards paled in comparison to learning out of internal curiosity to solve real and immediate problems.

One of the hardest aspects of studying STEM is that the long and indirect learning curve can represent an significant challenge.   Creative and inspirational payoffs usually don’t come before a lot of upfront heavy lifting and traveling down a long dark tunnel.  Unless one has the mental facility and spiritual endurance to master the fundamentals at some intimate level, mathematical or otherwise, the personal rewards may never come. This may explain why STEM appears to have a noticeably higher attrition rate than other fields.

Quote_Science_Pavlov( Pavlov Coped by Adjusting His Expectations Downward )

I always wanted to be an entrepreneur long before I knew what that word meant.  However, I made the common mistake of confusing “entrepreneurship” as a career in and of itself instead of just an perspective that overlays any of number of careers from contractors to software developers.  In a similar miscalculation, I saw STEM as a well-defined career and end goal in itself rather than as merely a means that would allow me to work on a broad range of interesting problems that matter to me.

Few people are lucky enough to know with confidence exactly what they want to use a rigorous STEM education for before they begin study and suffer from the lack of passion and drive that come from such clarity.  It’s a catch-22 problem.  You have to study at some length and depth to have a realistic idea of what are the interesting problems that will fire your imagination.  However, without that passion the exercise of study (especially dry subjects like analog circuits or organic chemistry) can seem pedestrian in comparison to Shakespeare or Plato.

I don’t know if my kids are suited or destined to go into STEM, but I certainly feel obliged to equip them with the opportunity to explore and understand as much of it as possible and as best they can.  STEM training in any amount is an invaluable asset in containing our restless limbic system to think in a rigorous, systematic, and logical manner about everything from finance to politics to philosophy.  I hope they are suitably equipped if and when they find their own meaningful problems to solve in life.

Feynman-Beauty