Help us Obi Wan: Why Science needs Science Fiction

There’s a very interesting dialectic between science and science fiction. If you take a look at, for example, Edwin Hubble, the greatest astronomer of the 20th century, he was destined to be a Missouri country lawyer. He remembered reading Jules Verne as a child. As a consequence, he dropped his law career, went to the University of Chicago, got a PhD and discovered the expanding universe. Take a look at Carl Sagan. When he was a kid, he read “John Carter of Mars”. He dreamed about chasing the beautiful Dejah Thoris across the sands of the red planet. There’s always been this tight relationship between science fiction and science.  Dr. Michio Kaku Theoretical Physicist and Author

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trip_to_the_moon_1902In, Will Sci-Fi Save Us? Studio 360 this week examined the integral relationship between science fiction and technological reality, that vital intersection between imagination and innovation that has brought the inventions of the literary mind to life in some form or other, in our everyday world. If there is still any doubt of the value of creative thought exercises and imaginative exploration to inspire curiosity driven learning, discovery and social progress, put on your cardboard VR Headset and consider the history of science fiction’s influence on our daily lives.

“It’s so easy to make money with a tale that says: ‘Civilization is garbage. Our institutions never will be helpful. Your neighbors are all useless sheep,’” science fiction writer and astrophysicist David Brin, told Studio 360. “’Now enjoy a couple of characters running around shooting things and having adventures in the middle of a dystopia.’”    While dystopia may sell books and movies, Brin said, the real value of good science fiction is that it builds the future.

Neal Stephenson, the author of Cryptonomicon and Snow Crash (which itself helped inspire the creation of Second Life) came to agree with that sentiment after sitting on a panel discussion with Arizona State University President Michael Crow. Stephenson had complained about the lack of inspiration from science discovery and innovation in recent years, but Crow told him the science fiction writers were the slackers. He said, recalled Stephenson, that “the engineers were ready to go, they had the tools, they had the willingness but the science fiction writers were no longer pulling their weight by supplying compelling visions of things for the engineers to build.”

From this epiphany arose the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University, which” brings writers, center-for-science-and-the-imagination-arizona-state-universityartists and other creative thinkers into collaboration with scientists, engineers and technologists to reignite humanity’s grand ambitions for innovation and discovery”.  Besides functioning as a network hub “for audacious moonshot ideas and a cultural engine for thoughtful optimism,” CSI  is also home to the Imaginary College, a group of “creative thinkers, researchers, practitioners, mad geniuses and global disruptors that represents one of the core missions of the Center for Science and Imagination: to seek out intelligent life wherever it resides in the universe, and to get it on our side. “

And from this came Project Hieroglyph,  a space for writers, scientists, artists and engineers to collaborate on creative, ambitious visions of our near future.

google-glassThese aren’t just sci-fi-in-the sky ideas.  The influence of science fiction on science fact is well established. A 2010 History of Science Society Journal article titled Modifiable Futures: Science Fiction at the Bench, takes a serious academic look at the measurable impact of science fiction on science invention, citing, among other things, the research of David R. Smith and his colleagues in the fields of transformation optics and electromagnetic cloaking of matter at microwave frequencies, aka “invisibility” shields or “cloaking devices.”  In his work, Smith referenced the imaginary technologies of the Fantastic Four, Star Trek and even the Harry Potter books.

“There is undeniably a link between science fact and the ideas that emerge in science fiction and fantasy. Science fiction authors are inspired by actual scientific and technological discoveries, but allow themselves the freedom to project the possible future course of these discoveries and their potential impact on society, perhaps remaining only weakly tethered to the facts. … Scientists, in turn, often derive inspiration from the imaginative possibilities that exist in fictional worlds, but are constrained to follow the laws of nature that apply in this world. The inventions in fictional worlds seldom transition to the real world—at least not in the way they are first imagined,” wrote Smith.

“Science fiction does not simply drive science, any more than science simply drives science fiction. Rather, they have a 375px-20090704-1971_StarTrekTOSCommunicatorReplicarelationship of ongoing and productive mutual modification,” noted the authors of Modifiable Futures.

Some common inventions fueled by science fiction include:

  • The cell phone, which inventor Martin Cooper stated outright as having been inspired by the old Star Trek “communicator.”
  • The helicopter and the submarine, both inspired by Jules Verne whose fantastic 19th century visions have lit imaginations since his works first hit shelves.
  • The liquid-fueled rocket was developed by Robert H. Goddard,who became fascinated with spaceflight after reading a serialization of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.
  • Taser is actually an acronym for “Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle” , made a reality by Jack Cover, a NASA researcher, inspired by the Tom Swift novels.

Even the internet comes down to us from the pages of science fiction.  Tim Berners-Lee,  widely credited for the creation of the worldwide web, was fascinated, as a child by Arthur C. Clarke’s  Dial F For Frankenstein, written in 1964, which drew on a scenario of networked computers that began to learn to think autonomously.

The power of curiosity driven exploration is in few places more evident than in our science fiction literature, which puts the A in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) in clear, measurable and enduring ways.  We need science AND imagination, now more than ever.

 

 

The Creative Power of Play

Children are born scientists. They are always turning over rocks and plucking petals off flowers. They are always doing stuff that, by and large, is destructive. That’s what exploration really is when you think about it. An adult scientist is a kid who never grew up. Neil DeGrasse Tyson

That inner kid, driven by the powerful engine of unabashed wonder – the curiosity that drives children to turn over those rocks or examine bugs or

Leaves of joyconstruct blanket forts – is a selfless motivator for art ,invention and innovation, as well as science.  Children aren’t thinking anything beyond “What’s this for?” or “I wonder what will happen if I do this?” or “This looks like fun!” or “What if….” when they do what they do best as children: experiment.

Challenges like Red Bull Creation are invitations to that creative playground of the mind, opportunities to do something just for the fun of it (and maybe for a trip to Detroit to make more stuff for the fun of it)  They’re like those funky icebreakers and team building exercises for business meetings, only better, because there’s no business meeting – just the exercise of being creative.

Every single time we’ve participated in a Red Bull Creation event, we’ve learned something new- often many new and interesting things.  Not because we were looking to learn something, but because in order to make what we wanted to make, we had to figure out how to master some new concepts, and usually they were concepts or ideas or skills we probably wouldn’t have learned in the ordinary course of our grown up lives.

In a recent column in the New York Times (The Art of Focus), David Brooks begins by admitting he’s “losing the attention war,” giving in to the multiple distractions the make up the fabric of our modern work days.

“Many of us lead lives of distraction, ” he says, “unable to focus on what we know we should focus on.”

But upon reading an interview with child psychologist Adam Phillips, Brooks says maybe we’re looking at that “attention war” all wrong.

boys-with-bubbleThe lesson from childhood, then, is that if you want to win the war for attention, don’t try to say “no” to the trivial distractions you find on the information smorgasbord; try to say “yes” to the subject that arouses a terrifying longing, and let the terrifying longing crowd out everything else.”

We’ve spoken here before about the importance of play in a productive society (A Players Uprising – A Manifesto for Play), because play, and more to our purposes as a creative, self-reliant and personally and economically fulfilled society,- its integral components of wonder, curiosity and joie de vivreis -  is a vital aspect of innovation.

Edutopia recently visited the story of the Robohand Club in Innovative Education: Make Room for “What Ifs”.  Educator Rich Lehrer , an 8th grade science teacher,  created an opportunity for his students to have “the kind of learning for which there are no textbooks or tests.”

What if we invite students to solve real problems? ” Lehrer asked. “What if the classroom doesn’t have walls? What if learning activities don’t always end with letter grades?

So he asked his students if they could help build a mechanical prosthetic hand for his 4 year old son, Max, who was born with a hand deformity.  They did, and learning happened – without structured classes, without assessments, without grades, his students were just able to “take an idea and soar!

Now Lehrer’s students weren’t “playing” in the playground sense of the word with this project. They were applying themselves at a high level of engagement to solve a complex problem – but in a creative group learning fashion often seen in play, and which David Brooks says we need to return to at the adult level as well.

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Discussing ideas at the recent Hillsborough Hackathon

Forget those brainstorming sessions, Brooks says, and those conferences with projector screens. Instead, find some like minded associates with “overlapping obsessions.”

Brooks urges us to look at the way children learn in groups.  “They make discoveries alone, but bring their treasures to the group. Then the group crowds around and hashes it out. In conversation, conflict, confusion and uncertainty can be metabolized and digested through somebody else. If the group sets a specific problem for itself, and then sets a tight deadline to come up with answers, the free digression of conversation will provide occasions in which people are surprised by their own minds.”

“The only way to stay fully alive,” says Brooks, ” is to dive down to your obsessions six fathoms deep.”

Eureka! That’s how our Red Bull Creation team works; that’s what happens in small informal learning groups, in FIRST teams , in our friends’ ASCII Warriors team, and in makerspaces all over the world, all providing playful opportunities to be surprised by our own minds.  This isn’t just project based learning, it’s project based living.

We need to find more engaging and productive ways to freedive into the depths of our creative being for our own good and for the good of our communities.

 

 

Eureka!Factory Presents Our Red Bull Creation 2014 Qualifier: The InstaHam!

RBCSo for this year’s Red Bull Creation 2014 Qualifying round, we were challenged to consider a way to make the world a better place, or at least a more fun and interesting place.  We went with fun and interesting, because anything that makes it fun and interesting, can also help make it better.  We decided to  put a new age spin on an old tyme tradition: the photo booth, a social experience where the outcome was always a surprise and you had to wait for the magic to happen.

We built the InstaHam from a TRS Drawbot design, by Sean Michael Ragan and Mikal Hart , with a small computer and a webcam to create a portable robotic photo booth that can be taken to various events as an outreach tool for Eureka! Factory events ,like Gulf Coast MakerCon and Roboticon, and10440793_719894301407568_8455677873310977066_n for our FIRST Tech Challenge robotics team, Team Duct Tape. By taking the InstaHam into the community we can engage people with technology in a fun and non-threatening way. The simple drawing mechanism helps to demystify robotics and computer aided manufacturing as well as demonstrating how accessible technology and making is to the general public.

We think the InstaHam provides community, fun, mechanical entertainment and gives fresh low-def perspective in a world often rendered too sharply hi-res to allow for the joys of imperfection.

We had a great time putting the InstaHam, together and learned a lot in the process. How awesome is it to convert an image into sound and then back into an image again?! By a bunch of amateur tinkerers  using a home computer and hacked together components, no less! This brings a whole new meaning to “home making”.  And brings home again, as well, the enormous potential of a citizenry encouraged and empowered to create!

The Patience to Succeed: Playing the Long Game

Today, we want success in seventeen levels, or seventeen minutes, seventeen seconds — and when the promise of something new and better is just a click away, who wants to wait seventeen years? But that’s the thing that connects all of these great people — they played the long game.”  Adam Westbrook, in the Long Game

andrea12For most of the centuries of human existence, we have known the truth of the sentiment, “good things come to those who wait,” or it’s 21st century manifestation, the 10,000 Hour Rule, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell.  Or at least we’ve understood its implications: that success, expertise, skill, knowledge, mastery and understanding take time to fully develop, to be realized, to blossom, and come to fruition.

In an interesting look at the work of Leonardo DaVinci, in the second installment of Adam Westbrook’s video series, The Long Game, Westbrook focuses not on DaVinci’s successes, but on the time between those successes – at one point a 16 year long dry spell, which wasn’t really dry so much as it was a spell of patient, persistent exploration. And everyone’s familiar with Thomas Edison’s endless light bulb trials and his sentiment that he hadn’t failed a thousand times, but rather knew one thousand ways not to make a lightbulb.

In his book, Mastery, author Robert Greene calls these down times between personal successes  “a self-directed IMG_3595apprenticeship” that can often last ten years or more but receives no historical or social attention because it often seems to lack stories of any significant discovery or achievement. The fact is, great people and their great discoveries, inventions, ideas, art and innovation don’t happen overnight.

“All of us have the brain, ” Westbrook notes. “and the talent, and the creativity to join them. But now, right when it matters, do any of us have the patience?”

frustrated-writerThat’s a good question, and an important one, because to do or create anything of enduring value requires time and patience.

In the aptly named blog post, Change takes Time,  Code for America Fellow  Molly McLeod talks about efforts to improve services and resources for the homeless in Long Beach, CA, where resources exist but it’s hard to connect people with them.

“…to be successful, ” she says, “interventions often have to be very hands-on, personal, and sustained over time,” often requiring dozens of conversations over months or even years to connect people with services.

In our high speed culture, it’s easy to forget that it actually takes time to do things, time to achieve things, time, ironically, to change things - especially in a world that seems to change so quickly.

But we’re only seeing the high tech legacy of efforts, not the history that led to their conclusions. Sure, Moore’s Law says technology advances exponentially, but it requires a lot of exponential developments to create truly valuable outcomes. Most of the stuff in between is bread and circuses, trinkets to amuse us. Most of the gadgets in cars are just gadgets. But there’s been a couple hundred years between the development of the car, and the development of the *driverless* car.

Similarly, cultural change takes time. There’s a great TEDx talk by Derek Sivers on “How to Start a Movement.” A dancingguymovement doesn’t happen when someone has an idea, he says, in this charming talk, but when the second person follows that first person with the idea, inspiring others to join in.

Real change requires community buy in, which usually starts with a small group of like-minded individuals and builds outward over time.  And even Gladwell’s 10,000 Hours rule has been tempered by the observation that it’s not necessarily the the amount of time invested in learning or creating something, but the quality of that time.

Efforts to fast track the success of products, opportunities, or ideas working from the top down are more often than not a flash in the pan, if  they spark at all, because they fail to take the quality time needed to nurture the relationships – personal, community, commercial and corporate –  that lead to real and enduring success.

It takes patience to really succeed, but the time spent playing the long game can be well rewarded.

Empowered Learning: Co-Authoring our Future

10175081_704085139655151_8564558905749992192_n“You can make the whole room smarter than any of the individuals in the room alone, including the instructor. There’s a radical shift in this way of doing things — it’s built on trust, and I think our existing school structures are built more on dependency and control than trust.” Brad Ovenell-Carter

Howard Rheingold, author of Smart Mobsand a professor at UC Berkeley’s School of Information, Digital Journalism and VirtualCommunity/Social Media, where he teaches a course in Participatory Media/Collective Action, has interviewed dozens of teachers for his blog on DMLCentral.  The common theme, he found, is “student empowerment.”

In his most recent blog piece, Co-Inventing the Curriculum, Rheingold looks at the work of  Brad Ovenell-Carter , a CanadianKONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA educator who teaches a course on Theory of Knowledge to an 11th high school class, Knowledge Ethnographers as he calls the students, whom he has tasked with observing ” how knowledge was stored, moved and processed during a (10th grade physics) lab.” 

Ovenell-Carter’s students are digitally literate, familiar with blogs, spreadsheets, and social media.  But he takes them a step further in ownership of their education.

“… instead of banking received knowledge in their brains, “notes Rheingold, “which assumes that the creation and testing of knowledge is for others, Ovenell-Carter’s students look for problems, ask questions, collect data, try to make sense of the data they have collected, test their hypotheses, apply and integrate what they’ve learned about co-discovering, co-inquiring, and co-learning to all their subject matter. “

This idea of moving from “the creation and testing of knowledge for others” to co-learning for the purposes of producing a personal “meaning-making toolset” is a powerful and empowering concept.   Educator Steven Anderson contends that,  “Alone we are smart. Together we are brilliant.”    Some rightly argue that we can be as deluded by a crowd as we can by ourselves (See Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds) , but what we’re looking at here is the time tested theory of small group-directed learning.  Sugata Mitra ‘s Hole in the Wall experiments have illustrated well how groups of children can co-learn in a collaborative setting  “where  children can share their knowledge and in the process, develop better group dynamics.” 

This journey from authoritarian rote content delivery to relevant and meaningful knowledge discovery is seen in everything from the growth of online learning to innovative charter schools to the developing maker movement.  It’s not well paved road, by any means.  There are pit holes, speed bumps,  steep drop offs and dead ends.   As always, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle,  a balanced diet of old school and new served with a healthy measure of open mindedness.

But Ovenell-Carter’s work, like Mitra’s and many others, continues to show us the many ways that we can make our way into an interesting, exciting and fast changing future, one that we need to be both thoughtful and nimble in negotiating, as well as efficiently collaborative if we are to succeed.

 

 

The Maker Effect

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FIRST Robotics Alumni – Engineers, filmmakers, roboticists, tinkerers all

The Maker Effect is the sum of the personal growth, professional success, community development, and continuous innovation that results when makers learn, educate, share, and create together. ”  The Maker Effect

The Maker Effect Foundation,a Florida nonprofit headed up by some veteran Florida makers and community leaders,  in collaboration with the Leadership Development Institute at Eckerd College, has undertaken a research study “to understand the personality characteristics, motivations, and behavioral skills used by makers when working alone and in teams. We hope to answer questions such as: “What are the common behavioral and personality characteristics of makers?”, “Why do maker communities work?”, “Why should I hire makers?”, etc..”

These are all good questions, because there’s a lot going on here, both within and without the maker community.

“Today’s makers,” say Maker Effect organizers, ” are providing the knowledge, skills, and tools to anyone willing to take ownership of their own future – democratizing innovation in the way that the invention of the printing press, the rise of personal computing, and the proliferation of the internet did in previous innovation cycles.”

The phrase “democratizing innovation” is an important one.  As with 21st century blended learning  that began democratizing education through online content and virtual classrooms a couple of decades ago, the Maker movement provides a wealth of opportunity in every sense of the word.   The “Maker-Entrepreneur” is the empowered  everyman and everywoman who can become an instant small business person on the strength of his or her own elbow grease and ingenuity. It’s the new Personal Industrial Age,  3D printed in the garage.

But there’s another “Maker Effect”, a sort of shadow presence that hangs around the periphery of the maker community.  As with the advent of MOOCs and virtual schools that  made every space potentially classroom space, and conceivably freed us of the “experts” who previously controlled knowledge,  come new “experts” trying to capitalize onthe glass blower our new found Maker freedom, as they did with open education.   Becoming your own expert can be threatening to some people, especially those whose livelihoods are dependent on some form of expertise that others can now access or develop for themselves.

These new “experts” trail in the wake of the grassroots maker movement, selling their wares and their services to people who originally distinguished themselves through their ability to fill their own needs.

  • Makerspaces literally started in people’s garages and empty building spaces. But now there’s TechShop franchises providing a makerspace in a box for the well heeled.
  • The Instructables were freely sharing how-tos for years.  But you can also pay for glossy how-tos with a Make Magazine subscription.
  • Early makers scrounged parts in junkyards and scavenged dumpsters.  Although many still do, today, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of suppliers for every possible tool, part and electronic and mechanical need.
  • Makers have always been able to sell things through Ebay and Etsy and Kickstarter. But now there’s a fleet of experts promising to make every Maker a Maker Entrepeneur and a successful start-up.

KThese aren’t bad things, of course. TechShop does cool stuff with DARPA. MAKE Magazine has a great community and provides terrific and very instructive hangouts and contests.   It’s nice to be able to shop at Adafruit.  And it’s helpful to have entrepreneurial support if you want it.

But here’s the thing:  Not every maker wants or needs to be an entrepreneur.

Many, if not most, makers simply want to – make stuff.  They’re  hobbyists and tinkerers, artists and explorers. They want to  build a widget, fix a motor, sculpt or paint, make a video, create a game, craft a costume, command a robot uprising.  Many makers already have jobs.  They’re engineers and fry cooks and writers and taxi drivers and parents and store managers and cashiers and mechanics and programmers and designers and students and any number of other things.

The exercise of making something  provides  intellectual enrichment, personal fulfillment and creative entertainment and relaxation.  Making things in a safe, accessible and collaborative environment like a makerspace provides community development and capacity building,  empowering ordinary citizens to be self-reliant, capable individuals who can take control of their own lives.  Sometimes that means selling their own products.  Oftentimes that just means being able to fix their own car or paint their own walls or play with their drone.

The real Maker Effect should make experts of us all, in a million different fields, empowering us to collaboratively improve our communities and to care for each other through the exercise of our shared skills and knowledge, as entrepreneurs, and as capable individuals.

Sometimes, Making is just the end in itself, and that’s a perfectly fine Effect.

Make Glorious Mistakes!

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by Daniel Dennett

Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before.” Neil Gaiman

Brain Pickings, one of our favorite sites for inspiring thought and introspection,  shared a look at philosopher Daniel Dennett, on the recent anniversary of his 72 birthday.  Dennet is often considered one of our greatest living philosophers.   What? You didn’t know there were still philosophers?  Allow us to introduce you to Mr. Dennett.

Daniel Clement “Dan” Dennett III is an American philosopher, writer and scientist with a particular interest in evolutionary biology and cognitive science.  He is currently the Co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies, and the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University. Among other things, he has been referred to as  one of the “Four Horsemen of New Atheism“, along with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens- a sort of evangelical atheist, a phrase he’d probably disdain.

More to our interests, though, he’s a huge proponent of failure.

“Mistakes are not just golden opportunities for learning, Dennett wrote in his essay, How to Make Mistakes, “They are, in an Oopsimportant sense, the only opportunity for learning something truly new. Before there can be learning, there must be learners. These learners must either have evolved themselves or have been designed and built by learners that evolved. Biological evolution proceeds by a grand, inexorable process of trial and error–and without the errors the trials wouldn’t accomplish anything. “

Recently, on the journey to creating something we believe is amazing and good and important, we made some big, truly glorious mistakes.  They were errors of judgement, mostly, affecting process and to some degree, perhaps the outcome of initial effort.

Dennett says, “The fundamental reaction to any mistake ought to be this: “Well, I won’t do that again!” “

That was, in fact, our reaction.  And that reaction, says Dennett, is the start of the reflection that is at the heart of the value of making mistakes.

“…when we reflect, we confront directly the problem that must be solved by any mistake-maker: what, exactly, is that? What was it about what I just did that got me into all this trouble? The trick is to take advantage of the particular details of the mess you’ve made, so that your next attempt will be informed by it, and not be just another blind stab in the dark. “

There’s a movement afoot in schools to de-stigmatize the action of making mistakes.

Credit: Hunter Maats and Katie O'Brien

Credit: Hunter Maats and Katie O’Brien

Mistakes, said authors Hunter Maats and Katie O’Brien in a recent Edutopia article (Teaching Students to Embrace Mistakes), are the most important thing that happens in any classroom, because they tell you where to focus …deliberate practice,” the exercise of “isolating what’s not working and mastering the difficult area before moving on.”

That’s one of the reasons FIRST robotics is such an effective educational program; mistakes – big glorious messy mechanical mistakes, emotional teamwork mistakes, complicated programming mistakes – are common and, thanks to the culture of FIRST, expected, embraced, documented and built upon.

When we first realized our mistake(s), we were disappointed, sad, frustrated and mad at our ourselves.  Once we could put aside some of the emotion of the experience, we were able to take at serious look at what happened and earnestly evaluate how we wanted to move forward.   And we became excited anew about the fresh possibilities presented as a result of the new knowledge gained from our big mistake, and even somewhat grateful for the experience. (Maybe we’ll be more grateful when a little more time has gone by!)

The folks at GoogleX have a “fail fast, fail often” philosophy.

“If we can get to a no quickly on an idea, that’s almost as good as getting to a yes,” says Rich DeVaul, head of Google X’s Rapid Evaluation team.  (How GoogleX Employees Deal with Failure)

If, as Dennett asserts, anyone who can say, “Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time,” is standing on the threshold of brilliance, then we’re near geniuses!  But a critical part of making the best of mistakes, Dennett points out, is to not hide from our mistakes, nor to hide our mistakes.   Dennett says we should savor our mistakes, suck out ” all the goodness to be gained from having made them, (and then) cheerfully set them behind you, and go on to the next big opportunity.”

It is that indomitable spirit that builds character and resilience, and makes good ideas become workable realities.

Back to the drawing board!

The FIRST Fountain of Youth & Promise

FIRST ChampionshipWe are in St. Louis this week, immersed in the wildly costumed, metal mashing,  techno rock drenched thrumming of the FIRST Championship, where over 12,000 youth from around the world have convened to compete in what is essentially the World Cup of geekiness – 120 lb robots flinging yoga balls across a 60 ft. field; smaller nimble robots grappling blocks and suspending themselves above the playing field, and LEGO robots caroming around a tabletop field racing to complete as many autonomous challenges as possible in 2 1/2 minutes.

Barry and watts up

FIRST Alumni and volunteer, Barry Bohnsack, with team Watts Up

It is loud.  It is crowded.  It is a sensory overload of sound, sight and movement.  For volunteers and staff like us,  it is exhausting.

And it is also and without a doubt, the Fountain of Youth.

A week spent among this energetic crowd of smart and warm-hearted young people is a week of promise and hope for the future, a tonic against the premature aging of  jaded pessimism.  Being with all these great students,  driven by the simple ethic of “Gracious Professionalism“,  with an enormous mentor base of adult supporters who believe in them, and in the power of empowered youth – is absolutely rejuvenating!

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Dr. Woody Flowers, the father of Gracious Professionalism.

Steve and I have been involved in FIRST robotics for nearly 10 years now, starting with our son’s involvement in FIRST LEGO League when he was  12.  We had never seen anything like it: kids screaming with excitement as their robots, designed out of LEGOs, made pre-programmed runs across a table top field studded with a variety of challenges involving moving or triggering certain game elements in two and a half minute matches.  There were crazy team names, wild costumes, rock music and energetic line dancing.

That’s what the kids loved. We loved that it was a character based STEM education program, emphasizing “Gracious Professionalism”, a paradigm that calls for achievement not just through academic and technical ability, but through kindness and compassion, as well.  What a brilliant idea – to be successful AND kind.

It wasn’t long before we were coaching and mentoring, too. And while our son has long since graduated, after 8 years of involvement in FIRST, Steve and I are still here, in the midst of this celebratory crowd of the green haired, and tie dyed, the helmeted and masked, the monkey suited and tiara crowned, who are wielding hand tools and drills,  crowding in on computer screens to tweak programming, and  talking earnestly with adults who care about what they have to say.  Our son, like many other youth who have graduated out of the FIRST program, is a FIRST mentor, drawn back into the caring community of FIRST that not only graduates academic and workforce capable young people, but nice and good people who care about each other and their world.

It is that culture of intelligent goodness, this intergenerational community of confidence and encouragement, that makes FIRST such an elixir of optimism,  and such a joy in which to participate and belong.  I wish for all the children at the FIRST Championship here in St. Louis, and the more than 300,000 worldwide across 80 countries who are also part of FIRST, a lifetime of that joy and promise, and the courage, character and grace to be successful and kind, all the days of their lives.