Robotics was my favorite place at Whitman. It was the most enjoyable “work” I’ve ever done, a retreat from stress, a place to hang out with friends, and a powerful teacher. All these are and were connected, so I’ll start with the beginning. Most people, including myself, come into robotics knowing very few relevant skills, and with maybe one or two friends there. So the first things we did were to play some team building games, and go through how to safely operate all the machinery.
Once the basics are done, robotics really starts. Robotics is wonderful in that it’s very much up to the students what to do, and every individual has a ton of options. All that’s given to you is the rules, and how to score points in the year’s game. So you decide, with your teammates, what your strategy is; offense, defense, team player, solo, some mix? Then you have to decide on just how you’re going to accomplish that strategy, what traits do you need to perform well? Maneuverability? Speed? Durability? How are you going to accomplish that, swerve drive, tank drive, 6 wheels, 4 wheels? What kind of wheels, skid wheels, mechanum, omni?
Everything is left up to the team. And the people with more experience will have more to say, but everyone can put up their ideas. And at first, no single option is decided. Which is wonderful! What happens is the various implementations of the strategy are researched, prototyped, and tested. Each implement tends to have its own sub-leader who’s passionate about that project, and is there consistently. My first year I helped lead a sub-project simply because I was there often enough, and really wanted to see it through. It was great to see it done, even when it wasn’t used later, just because I knew that this was my sub-teams little creation. One of the epic, and extremely real-world, parts of robotics is how you really get out what you put in. And if you can’t be there consistently, you still join up on whichever project you like the most, and help out when you can. The choices are really up to you, robotics gives you a freedom you really don’t find until college, and it’s brilliant and enjoyable. The “work” is so fun because it’s what you choose to do.
But the work isn’t just your work, it’s your team’s work. Each subteam member helped build or plan or wire or program the mechanism, and you all did it together. You can’t have a working mechanism with no power, or with nothing to tell the motors or pneumatics when to run, code. So you learn to accommodate the other member’s needs on the system. More than that, you learn to work together. You start becoming a team, sharing laughs at your derpy failures, and being proud of your shared work.
You also form bonds outside your subteam, robotics has dinner! Oftentimes, work goes on rather late into the evening. But that’s also a great way of team building, because you’re all in the same situation. We had one day where all the seniors blitzkrieged their math homework together. We often talked about our aspirations during *between* classes, and it’s quite brilliant to learn how everyone is getting their “work” done. So by the time the tournaments start rolling around, you’ve definitely found your niche, with probably a few closer friends, and the rest of the team being pretty awesome, but in the background.
The tournaments are awesome. First, if you’re going to a non-DC tournament, you essentially get the college life. You’re going out with your friends to get food, and sleeping (or staying up late watching movies) together. The actual rounds are a mess of high-speed stress, exhaustion, elation, and general passion. Team cheers happen, or sometimes don’t, but the entire team is hanging by the same high-tension thread while they watch the robot go. The frustrations can come out, but it’s also a period where the entire team shares the same joys and pains. And when it’s over, it’s celebration time; a few more movies, and some food, and then the return to a life where you wish the lab was open more.
When it’s through, you’ll be astounded at what you’ve learned. It really is amazing how what you see around you changes. I can name half the parts on the bus, and how it was put together. But what’s better are the lessons in what you can do. You really learn what you can do; you went through a difficult project from the very basics, and have learned enough to embark on your own projects. I’ve fundraised for my own little projects, and have the confidence to do them. No longer do I say, “oh that’d be cool,” and then just move on. I make it. Because I know I can, and because I want to. Also because there’s something intrinsically awesome about creating things. It’s not like I wasn’t self-confident before, but now I’ve got much more of a “let’s do it, because it’ll be awesome!” attitude.
This has obviously had an impact on my day to day life, but it’s probably most evident in the start of my college life. The college I’m going to started their engineering society when I was a freshmen, and it didn’t have the backing of the relatively small engineering department. I joined, and immediately became part of the board. You don’t realize how much you know till you see others who don’t really know: a fair number of the board were individual hobbyists. They didn’t know how to go about large scale, team oriented projects. So I helped forge the new society into a more professional and large scale organization, because I knew how to go about all the frustrating necessities for large projects, such as fundraising and coordination. I helped teach the various years, freshmen to senior, some of the basic skills I learned in robotics, and I organized my own projects which the society pursued together. I think what let me do all that was the organization, brute-determination, and self-confidence I learned from robotics.
So, if you’re thinking about joining, GO FOR IT! I literally can’t encourage you enough, I love seeing new people join! Join for the friends, for the skills, for the overall lessons, for the late nights and great dinners! Join for the experience, just give it a try. If you need some more practical incentives, 9 of 12 of my year’s seniors went to Ivy+ colleges. I can, and have, talked with professional engineers and can carry an in-depth conversation for a while. I’ve got enough relevant job-skills that I’m teaching some Grad Students how to go about their engineering projects, and teaching various entrepreneurs at the local tech start up how to CAD or other skills. But frankly, I think back on robotics not for these, but for the new world-view where I see all that society has built around me, and mostly for the amazing times I had; with the friends I continue to spend time with.
Good luck, and rock it!
Walt Whitman 2014 grad