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.

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