Wednesday, July 22, 2009

And now, for something completely different...

Since the engineering girls' club activities went so well last semester, I've been invited to come to some engineering summer camps, along with my labmates, and talk about robots, our research projects, show kids around the lab, stuff like that. First off on the camps to visit was the robotics camp. It was quite the contrast from one day to the next to go from the free camp in an old high school to the fancy camp at the university. Forget about having to share scissors and stuff, each camper at the robotics camp gets a set of Lego Mindstorms to themselves for the week!

I am seriously resenting those Legos right now, ha ha. We showed the kids our autonomous robotic vehicle platform and talked about all the work we (well, my lab... not me) have done on it, and what it can be used for once it is complete. Usually when we show off the robot, there are oohs and ahhs and lots of questions. This time we mostly got sass. "Well that's nice that it can drive around, but today I made a robot out of my Mindstorms that can chase a tennis ball and climb up walls." Apparently we just got served.

Since the kids seemed a little underwhelmed, we thought we'd ramp things up and bring in the autonomous airplane in after lunch. The kids were excited to feel just how light it is, carry it around, and see the workshop where students work on the plane(s). That still didn't save us from the sassing. This one kid in particular decided that it was absolutely unacceptable that the plane ever, EVER crash, then proceded to berate them about all their design decisions.

Although he made us want to rip our hair out, he was a pretty funny kid. It was neat that he knew so much about stuff, but he hasn't quite got the wisdom yet to use any of his knowledge. From what I hear, he gave the shop staff a talking to about how they shouldn't be allowed to build anything out of steel because titanium is stronger and lighter and better. He commented on a 4th year design project (treads for a vehicle) that he couldn't believe that it took them three months to design treads because everyone knows that all you need to make treads is the treads themselves, three gears, and a spring.

Pretty impressive stuff for someone so young, though. Also, one of the campers, instead of using the visual programming language that comes with the Mindstorms, informed us that he was programming all his robots in C#. The general consensus from the volunteers regarding this was, "What the hell did I do with my childhood?"

It's hard to compare the two groups of kids and the two camps I visited this week. Even though I think the immigrant camp is so helpful and wonderful, I can't help feeling like those kids might still be screwed anyway as soon they end up, whether in a year or a decade, competing with the kids from a more privileged background. They have just as much potential as the other kids, but more challenges and almost none of the opportunities.

Agh, this makes me want to become a communist.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Rocket Balloons!

The other day I went to visit a summer camp for refugee and immigrant children. Their goals are to:
Improve the academic success and social behaviour of African children and youth;
Inspire children to stay in school and instill a desire to learn;
Increase awareness of career and post-secondary paths;
Inspire participants to believe in their potential through mentoring by culturally and age relevant role models and opportunities for progressive mastery of skills;
Increase participants' family and cultural connection and sense of cultural identity;
Encourage participants to make healthy life choices;
Provide participants with opportunities for leadership, decision making, collaborative experiences, teamwork, and networking with peers.
I am incredibly impressed with the dedication of the team of volunteers making this happen. I'm glad that our city sponsors programs like this, you really can't put a price on this type of experience.

One of the groups I volunteer with on campus was asked to come and do some science demos for the camps, and we were only too happy to oblige. We brought our rocket balloon kits to talk about air pressure, flight, Bernoulli's principle, and other wonderful things! Previously, the biggest group I did this demo for had sixteen students. This camp had one hundred! Even though we had tried to prepare for it, it was a bit of a logistics nightmare on our end and it took a while to get going.

When we finally got the rocket balloons shooting along, it was so cool to see what kind of designs the campers came up with. Their objective was to create two rocket balloons per group, one that would fly straight, the other that would twist as it travelled along the string. They came up with hypotheses and theories as to what would cause one behaviour or the other, then got to test them.

Compared to other groups I've done this demo with, these kids were really independent thinkers and came up with lots of variables and ideas to test. Kick butt! After they tested their rockets, they couldn't wait to go back and see how they could improve their results. It was really the best thing we could hope for from this type of activity, and there was a great post-activity discussion with lots of questions. Also, one group hoarded a bunch of tiny balloons and molded them into a rocket named (and shaped like) Megatron. I had to leave a bit early, but luckily my super demo partner was able to stay very late and conclude the discussions and other activities in the demonstration.

So in summary, I'd have to say:
-polite, enthusiastic, inquisitive campers!
-energetic, creative camp volunteers
-fun activity
-science WIN!

We will continue to visit the camp this summer, hopefully more prepared, and with more challenging cool science activities! This activity went well, but it's hard to provide something that's fun for the youngest kids while still challenging and interesting for the older ones. Next time we'll be presenting to smaller groups so that we can better target the information.

(Tank by artist Hans Hemmert)

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Everyone's a little dumb sometimes

I felt pretty bad the other day for wasting most of someone's day calibrating my equipment, when it would have only taken half an hour or so if I had been more prepared. There was a "magic" step in my process, between "put equipment in test apparatus" and "calibration curves!". Turns out it needed a lot more elaboration than that.

Today, some other students asked me to help them calibrate their equipment, which is similar to mine. They asked a lot of hard questions, but I was prepared, since I had botched that stuff up before, and I was glad that I wasn't the only person having the same problems. I also got to share my fantastic spreadsheets that check to see if the calibration data agrees with theory or the manufacturer's specs. It's pretty cool when they ask for my opinion on things, I feel....special?

What I really like about my research stuff is that people listen to and appreciate what I say and treat me like an equal. That means scathing criticisms along with the nice things. At first I was afraid that people would be dismissive or dumb things down for me because I'm still an undergrad, but that hasn't been the case at all. Seems like a huge change from my 'real world' jobs.
I tend to veer off on tangents. Pick your tangent from the menu on the right.