“We were overwhelmed,” said Michael Daza, an eighth-grade student at the DC-based robotics club. But the disappointment did not last long. “Now that we know what to expect, we’ll be ready next time,” he said.
No defeatist attitudes on the part of these young people. No desperation or despair. In robotics, problem solving is the name of the game. And if the problem is systemic, they will design a new system if they have to. They will form a new team. And fix it.
“If you work as a team, it’s much better,” said club member Zahra Merchant, who is in her fourth year.
It would also be good advice for a group like, say, Congress. But the young people were just talking about the skills they were learning in robotics – skills they were honing for a future that sometimes seemed as promising as it was perilous.
Just days after the DC teams returned, a gunman massacred 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, about 350 miles from where they competed in Dallas.
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Like most people, the students were shocked and saddened. But as desperation and frustration spread across the country, causing some adults to give up in despair, young people clung to the belief that if you have the will to solve a problem, you will find a way.
“Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with a new idea, a new way of trying to solve a problem,” Michael said. “I’ll usually get up and try it. I actually started to visualize solutions to problems.
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Just going to the Vex Robotics World Championship in Texas was proof of that. A total of 20,000 teams from 50 countries vied for entry. Only 2,300 teams from 36 countries were selected. The DC-based nonprofit robotics club had eight qualified teams, five of which were all-female.
It was a big win right from the start.
Ryan Daza, a 45-year-old economist, quit his job as a data miner about five years ago and founded the robotics club. About 150 young people from DC-area schools were meeting at a school in the district on Sundays for practice sessions.
When the school was closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, Daza turned the basement of his northeast Washington home into a robotics workshop. He installed tables and benches. He bought tools. He cleared a veranda to make room for the teams to test out their newly built robots.
Club members would come to his house in rotation, adhering to social distancing and other virus protocols. For almost two years, he worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week, to keep his club running. He purchased robotic parts and delivered them to members’ homes. He also found three garages in the city that the club could use to test robots that were too big to work in its basement.
He organized remote and live tournaments; he found mentors and sponsors.
“I grit my teeth, I squint and my brain just says ‘do it,'” said Daza, who is club member Michael’s father. “If I fail, I adapt and try again. When you try to create something that didn’t exist before, that’s what you do. Continue like that.
The club continued to rack up tournament wins and eventually qualified for the event in Dallas.
Robotics is one of those subjects that can engage virtually any student, if taught properly. It promotes critical thinking skills to solve complex problems through teamwork.
“In competitive sports, only 1 or 2 percent of participants can expect to become professionals,” Daza said. “In competitive science, it’s 100 percent.”
Despite the pandemic, the Capitol City Robotics organization has grown to over 300 members. From kindergarten age, children learn robotics. And as they grow, so do their robots. Some are eight feet tall. Daza is out of space. It needs a space at least as big as a basketball court to serve as the club’s new home.
There is also a waiting list of over 150 people wishing to join the club. Who knows? A robotics program just might keep a kid away from a gun. Take care of these children now, when they need help. Don’t raise your hands. Help them.
By all means pass any laws that might help stop the slaughter. But don’t forget to support the living. The kids at Capitol City Robotics aren’t thinking of giving up. They intensify.
They didn’t complain about how China and Taiwan seem more committed to teaching robotics in schools than educators in the United States.
They also don’t complain about the injustice of having problem-solving exercises that go way beyond robotics – like how not to get killed by a gunman if you find one loose in your school. Students in Taiwan are free from such misery.
Each of the Capitol City Robotics teams has names – Michael is a member of the Techs; Zahra’s team is the Robokitties. Ila’s call themselves the Unhidden Figures, which is a way to signal progress and optimism. “Hidden Figures”, you may recall, was the title of a 2016 film about a group of black female NASA mathematicians who only belatedly got credit for their role in flight history. spatial.
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At Capitol City Robotics, approximately 75% of members are people of color, and five of eight robotic teams are all-female.
“We’re going out,” Ila said.