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?!”

Robot Test Kitchen Worked for Me: A successful Finch Experience

The Finch

A week ago, I held a large station-style robotics program called “Robot Invasion,” and I introduced several robots and electronics kits including Cubelets, Sphero, LittleBits, Snap Circuits, Snap Circuit Rover, and the Finch. I introduced the Finch to the group as one of the more challenging things there, and said it might be best for someone with a bit of experience with Scratch programming. As I had hoped, one boy ran right up and grabbed the Finch and a laptop. He had used Scratch extensively, and had heard of the Finch but never got a chance to try one.

I’ve found most of the robots to be fairly intuitive, but I haven’t had a lot of time with the Finch. Part of my preparation for the program included reading other Robot Test Kitchen reviews and it was more helpful than I could have imagined. I was able to anticipate and circumvent setup difficulties. We did reach an impasse after installing the programs and downloading the extensions for Scratch — I couldn’t get them to appear in the “More Blocks” menu. I tried to make the best of this by asking the boy, “What do you think we should do?” and he suggested we close Scratch and reopen it from a different menu — and that worked. In very little time he and soon several others were very capably commanding the Finch. They did not seem bothered that it was tethered by the cord.

Finch and Friends

I’ll risk sounding too nerdy and say that reading Robot Test Kitchen reviews helped with this program the way that using a map helped me navigate The Legend of Zelda back when I was a kid; you still have to fight the bad guys, but at least you know how to get to them. Reading about others’ experiences and challenges helped me prepare and problem-solve. Both reviewers recommended this for someone with some coding or Scratch experience, and knowing that up front helped me match it with patrons who could get the most from this experience.

TL;DR: Robot Test Kitchen reviews helped me make good use of my time and improve my patrons’ program experience.