Making little robots

IBM is a big supporter of National Engineers Week, encouraging us to go out and visit schools to help interest students in technology. Last year was my first year as a participant, but the only classroom I visited was my son’s classroom — and, while I probably did some good, one of the goals of NEW is to reach out to kids who are more at risk than the kids at Kehillah are likely to be.

So this year, I volunteered again, and today was my day to go visit a classroom. I didn’t go alone this time; instead, I went with a colleague, who used to be a substitute teacher — and we visited her daughter’s 5th grade classroom. It was a very different experience — instead of fifteen well-behaved teenagers (yes, it can happen!), there were 29 kids, some of whom were very quiet and shy, and some of whom were, well, let’s just say “boisterous”.

But the kids were interested, especially once we started the activity — we broke the room into four teams, each of which had to program one of their number to perform a simple task. They had a few elementary actions to use (things like “move left foot forward one foot”), but that was more than enough to give them opportunities to make some fun mistakes. And they did — telling the robot to move the same foot forward several times in a row, or forgetting to have the robot get up before starting to walk.

Eventually, all of the teams succeeded at their tasks, and there had been no injuries, even though I’d forgotten to tell them about the Three Laws of Robotics.

I was glad I wasn’t on my own today, but I may volunteer to do this again in another school later this spring. It beats debugging my code!