The Real Value of Learning through Robotics

Learning is a struggle, not only for kids, but for adults, too. Each year for the past eight I’ve had a role in leading a robotics team at the middle school level. During the past four years, I’ve been the primary mentor for the team. I don’t actually know very much about servos and motors, but I know problem solving and I learn more every year.

Every fall season the team comes together with new students which means new adults in the mix. Although the process of running the team has improved over the years, the biggest challenge I face is communicating the real purpose of this contest. My job is to help the students and adult volunteers recognize the importance of letting the students be uncomfortable as they struggle to learn. The prize is not a trophy, it is the ability to persevere.

Let’s face it, everyone wants to win; learning is sometimes a consequence of that end. The goal of always winning has saturated our society. Everyone wants to wave the trophy in the air. As educators, we need to promote the prize of learning because that is what our society needs. 

I am reminded of what I learned from Dr. John Kotter  who talks about the loss that is inevitable if we stop short of getting our message out. I have lived this first hand. Our team typically exhausts the ideas of middle school students and parents step up. Parents guide the students through the process of how to bring an idea from a thought to an object. I reiterate the purpose of our team to remind students it is their job to determine how to get from idea to working robot through brainstorming, trial and error and using the engineering process. 

Students will struggle and sometimes their ideas fail. The contest is not about the robot, although that’s the draw for student members; it is about learning to use the engineering process to solve problems. The process teaches an essential life lesson. Year after year I have been blessed with parents and mentors who appreciate this vital part of our purpose.

CaptureWhat is becoming more apparent to me is the necessary trade-off team mentors make to stay true to the agenda of the BEST Robotics Competition. Education leaders must rub against the social norm of winning at all cost versus working for the sake of learning. The price is high. Teachers, and adult volunteers know the importance of learning from failure yet many adults won’t allow their children the experience. The scenario plays out on the course every year.

As the team leader, I am willing to put friendship aside to grow the grit of students in my tutelage. It’s no secret why fewer people are stepping up to volunteer in programs like this. Aside from the frenzy of daily life, for many adults, the price of loosing social acceptance is too high a price for a prize that will never sit on the shelf. For some people, losing has no value. 

I am amazed by the ingenuity of the students on our team. As education leaders we must thicken our skin and be ready for the possibility of being less liked by our peers and push the agenda of learning over winning.  Brilliant young minds are depending on us. 

Learning through robotics is about learning to learn, not learning to win. After many years of leadership in this role, I know that to perform well in the BEST Robotics Competitions and in life our members must have the discipline and commitment to focus on the process not the prize. That is the real struggle learners’ face, no matter the age.