My Program Failure

Programs, True Confessions

To my great shame, my most memorable program failure involved my first attempt at robotics. I had heard about Bristle Bots (or brush bots), I read as much as I could find about them, and I had talked to staff at other libraries who had fun and successful Bristle Bots programs. It seems straightforward enough; adhere a little motor and battery to the head of a toothbrush, glue on some googly eyes, and watch it run around the table.

What went wrong

Things started going wrong in the days leading up to the program as I received the supplies and tried to make a sample project. The motors we had were too big, and the dollar store toothbrushes could not support them. In trying different methods to attach the batteries to the motors, I ended up draining some of the batteries and needed to go to the store to buy more.

At the time of the program, I still wasn’t happy with the project. I made the best of it by telling program attendees the problems with the design, and presenting it as a challenge to design a way to make it work. The closest we came to success was by fastening two toothbrush heads with adhesive foam strips, but we only got the tiniest of scoots before the batteries died or it tipped over. It wasn’t devastating, but it was disappointing.

Look at this sad thing:

Bristle Bot

What I learned

Having the right supplies is pretty important. We purchased the smallest motors we could find locally, but we should have gone online and perhaps bought these or these. By the time I realized the motors we had were too big it was too late to have smaller ones shipped. The whole thing was a learning experience for me, and after almost two years I will be attempting DIY robots again this summer. I’ll let you know how it goes!

What about you?

At Robot Test Kitchen we believe that learning is at its best when you are ready to fail forward. Do you have a program failure you’d be willing to share with Robot Test Kitchen readers? Contact us and tell us about it.


Punching Above My Weight

Raspberry Pi, True Confessions

It’s Sunday morning and I wake up thinking about computer monitors. Specifically, where can I get more for cheap, and where will I store them and how will I get them, smoothy and safely, into our multipurpose meeting room at the library every other week. And this gets me thinking about extension cords and how we probably need some more since the outlets are only around the perimeter of the room, and these kids want to look at each other, not stare at a wall.

I’m also thinking about these Minecraft Circuits In Real Life kits, and trying to figure out if any soldering is actually involved despite them being listed on a site called Soldering Sunday, which is kind of like how some folks probably find themselves here in the Robot Test Kitchen and wonder what’s robotic about paper airplanes and marshmallow towers. I have a lot on my mind.

I tell my husband I need to figure out more things to do with the Raspberry Pis that piqued my initial monitor musing. I’m worried that my coding club needs more ideas, maybe a project to bring them back together again since they’ve grown in number and mostly paired up and are working on individual projects. “Are they networked yet? I found these cool soundcards for cheap. What about moisture and heat sensors? There’s so much cool stuff you can do with them! ” he says. I tell him what the ten kids (ten! TEN! This time last year I was happy when I had three!) did last Thursday and how no, they’re not networked and one of the three isn’t working, and we’ve only gotten Minecraft Pi loaded on one.

He reminds me how far I’ve come before asking, “You do realize how much you’re punching above your weight here, right?” Boy, do I. Every day I’m reminded of that.

I’m energized by the enthusiasm of the middle schoolers who come to my coding club every other week, who ask why can’t we do it every week, and who excitedly show me the JavaScript games they’re building together outside of club too. But yes, I know I am punching above my weight, every time they ask me a question and I reply with, “Well, what have you already tried? At which point did you get stuck?” and then ask if anyone in the room has had experience with that problem, and can they come and help this guy over here work through it because that’s the only answer I have.

I’m reminded of it when I read the components lists for simple project kits and need to Google several of the pieces and then only gain a surface level understanding of them.

I’m reminded of it whenever I read about what much bigger libraries (and only a little bit bigger libraries) are doing with makerspaces and technology with their youth and am paralyzed when I think about how I would go about implementing similar projects.

As my friends in tech often say, and as I often feel even in the library world, “there’s a legion of people out there who know more than you and they’re coming fast and furious.” The struggle is to see this not as a threat, but as an opportunity to learn, to grow, to collaborate, to keep on punching. None of us needs to be the best, we just need to keep going.

I am punching above my weight. But I’m punching. I’m thinking about it on Sunday morning when I wake up. I’m looking for answers from colleagues and peers and strangers. I feel like I’m cheating when I ask my tech-field husband’s advice because really, shouldn’t I be able to figure this out on my own? What kind of example am I setting if I’m relying on my husband‘s knowledge to do my job?

On better days, I remind myself that the example I’m setting is the one the Maker movement wants set: I’m setting an example of trial and error, of collaboration, of shared workspaces and cocreation. I’m trying. I’m failing. I’m thinking. I’m learning. Maybe not as fast as I want to be learning, but it’s happening. Like Michelle reminded us, our one-year-ago selves would probably be impressed with where we are. And I need to check myself – constantly – and pull myself back to the present, where it’s about those ten (ten! TEN!) tweens & teens in my meeting room every other week who are doing their own thing, doing things that they couldn’t do a year ago, and not about me one bit.

I’m a big believer in the Search Institute’s 40 Developmental Assets and every time I read through them, I feel better. Coding Club – even as thrown together and chaotic as mine sometimes feels – is giving these kids the opportunity to add to their asset lists. What we’re doing matters, and it’s working, and by perservering when it’s hard, I’m modeling exactly what I hope they get out of it. I’m not in this to help teens become excellent coders, Maker extraordinaires, or jumpstart their app creation businesses. I’m in it for the long haul.

I’m in it to be a part of their community of caring adults who believes in them, supports them, provides a safe space where they are valued, and the skills they need to persevere, and encourages them to keep it up, keep punching above their weight. In coding club, in everything.

True Confessions: I’m doing this to set an example

True Confessions

My daughter’s self portrait at 4: “This is a Flower-suck-in-up-inator. It sucks up all the flowers and gives them to sick kids.”

I know a lot of little girls. Way more little girls than little boys. I am the mother of two daughters, the aunt to two nieces, and as my circle of friends started having all girl babies, we wondered if there was something in the water.

I love seeing them grow and change. I love that they can share hand-me-downs and I’ve got plenty of commiseration about the timing of ear piercing or the best ways to mitigate that phase-shifting shriek that crops up when they’re together and super excited. I love seeing the activities they’re engaged with – there’s ice skating and martial arts and dance and art and mushroom hunting and scouting and baseball. And I love the opportunity I have to model something important.  That “something” is not an affinity for technology or an expertise in coding.

I came of age to the tune of “We girls / can do anything / right Barbie?” My youth wasn’t void of strong women doing amazing things, but I never saw them struggle with their work. It all looked easy, practiced, natural. But being anything you want is not as easy as donning a new outfit and having the right accessories, and I happily abandoned the hobbies and tasks that didn’t come naturally to me. I was good at a lot of things, and I stuck with them, to good success. I’m doing this to set an example of effort, of struggle, of failure and learning.

Great strides have been made in the realm of equalizing educational outcomes for girls and boys with regard to STEM fields. Girls today are fortunate to have more examples* of successful women in STEM, and more exposure to technology and making than we did as kids. (Enough that, when asked to draw a self portrait at preschool, my daughter drew an invention instead, and it made sense to us.) But as someone who was naturally drawn to the liberal arts, my goal is not to show girls that STEM is the right choice for everyone. It’s not. We need artists and social workers and shopkeepers and welders and grant writers and librarians too.

My goal is to show them that even when we choose what is easy for us, what is right for us, the effort needed to expand and move forward is worth it. My goal is to show them that there can be fun and growth in trying something new, something hard. My goal is to show them that this is hard for me. But it’s also good for me. I want them to see that I’m still learning about myself and the world around me. I want them to know that dressing the part is the smallest part. That maybe astronaut Barbie does yoga and is learning to paint on the weekend but having trouble with facial proportions, and learned all the math she needed to learn only after she fell in love with the stories of the stars.

*More, but not enough, especially in some fields. One of my memorable Robot Test Kitchen programs began with a 6th grade girl walking in, seeing a room full of boys, throwing her arms up and shouting, “Why I am always the only girl that comes to this stuff?!”