Death Comes to the Robotics Team

At the beginning of the current school year, I was asked to serve as the assistant advisor for our school’s FIRST Robotics Team (Dean Kamen should be proud of me, I referred to it in the way that he would prefer that I did).  Having expressed some passing interest at the end of last year, more a factor of the conclusion of my major extracurricular time-sink for the prior four years (Class of 2011 co-advisor), I was somewhat hesitant.  Free time is never something that I have in spades, and even with minor understanding of what was involved, I was not at all certain that I had the proper amount of time needed to be the assistant advisor.  I voiced my concerns to the advisor, and he assured me that it wasn’t a major investment of time on my part.  I would need to be present at the three competitions, and spend the typical amount of time advising the sub-set of students who would be focused on programming the robot.  It wouldn’t matter all that much that I had very little experience programming in the language that the robot used (LabView), by default, I am the most technologically-literate staff member in the building (if not the district).  The fact that I have any experience programming anything put me a few steps ahead of the rest of the pack.  Guidelines established, I agreed.

It soon became clear that by agreeing to serve in this capacity, I was granted a front row seat to one of the more depressing phenomena that the modern school has to offer:  the dying club.  

Our FIRST robotics team is one of the original teams in the area (our team number is below 300, a team that begins this year will have a number well north of 2000), and has been functional since 1999.  Since it’s inception, it has had one, main advisor, and a rotating roster of assistant advisors, with the exception of last year, when the long-time advisor tried to hand it to another teacher, who, for various reasons that should not be publicly discussed, ended his brief tenure with an administrative ban on ever being associated with the team again.  Following this debacle, the original advisor was asked to pick up the reins again for one last go here in what is his final year in the district before retirement.  

The point to all of this is to establish that the year did not begin on the most auspicious note.  And it quickly went downhill from there.  The team was rudderless, and too busy picking up the pieces from the prior year’s issues to ever get the sort of focus needed to successfully navigate the remarkably high bar that the FIRST program sets for its participants.  On another level, whereas most other districts have extensive partnerships with local businesses and engineering firms (think Motorola), and a vibrant fabric of parental support to draw upon, our district doesn’t really have that lever to pull.  A few local businesses kick in a few hundred bucks, and the father of the captain was a constant presence, but that was about the extent of it.  I am told that these structures used to be more developed, but a gradual hollowing out during the past few years (exacerbated by the ship running fully aground last year), seemed to have left precious little behind.  The advisor, while certainly knowledgeable about the subject at hand, had a different advisorly style than what I have been accustomed to, or that I have practiced in the various clubs that I have advised during my career.  He also has a habit of yelling when he gets frustrated, which is the complete opposite course of action to the one that I take in similar circumstances.

To be clear, I don’t absolve myself of my own fair share of culpability in the process.  I had even less time and inclination than I thought I might have had in September.  And while I diligently made sure to provide a venue for the programming team to meet every Tuesday, my lack of understanding of the programming tool (and even more my lack of time to learn the application) lead to a very laissez-faire approach to driving my side of the bargain.  Then again, it was understood by October that various personal life events were going to dictate that I would not be serving in a similar capacity next year, or any year thereafter, and with that in mind, I thought that if there were to be a future for this program, the best thing that I could do would be to facilitate as much knowledge acquisition as possible for the programmers, so that next year, with all of the changes that it would bring, at least the students would know how to pick up the computer and begin telling the robot what to do.  

But I don’t think there is going to be a next year.  There is no one in the district who has the combination of skills and allotment of free time necessary to run the FIRST program.  And in this age of budget cuts, the few thousand dollars that are coded for the team in the budget are an easy target to make disappear (to say nothing of the tech program—no one is being hired to replace the retiring advisor).   And that’s a damn shame, because if there was any bright side to this experience, it was watching the five students who really cared about what they were doing, doing it to the best of their ability, even with the walls crumbling around them.  Watching kids get really in to a project like building a robot is magical.  Seeing how they deal with a hollering advisor, and a bumbling co-advisor is hilarious.  And listening to them talking about their plans for a non-existent next year on the bus ride home from the last day of competition is enough to break your heart.

PS-  I would like to clearly note that just because I like what my students did, that is not an endorsement of the FIRST program in any way, shape, or form.  None of my criticism is for the students, teachers, or mentors that I dealt with, all of whom were AMAZING!  But I am very ambivalent about the amount of money that is spent on entry fees for this particular program (thousands and thousands of dollars).  I’m sure a good amount of it is my own ignorance, but I’m not really clear on where the money goes.  I mean, I’m pretty sure all of the parts in the kit are donated by the sponsors.  Why did it cost $3,000 for our team to enter the NYC regional at the Javits center?  And why, exactly, could that entry fee afford a fully catered lunch on three different days for all of the volunteers, but not cover the cost of even a boxed lunch for the students?  I mean, Javits has some of the most overpriced food in the city.  The whole thing seemed unpleasantly thoughtless.