This weekend I am off to volunteer as a judge at the FIRST Robotics New Jersey Regional Tournament, which I do every year. Founded by legendary engineer Dean Kamen, this is a wonderful program that teams high school students with adult professional engineers. Each team has six weeks to build a robot with special skills such as placing soccer balls into hanging baskets, and then we gather for a big weekend tournament and have a blast! The best teams move on to the National Championship.
FIRST calls this program “The varsity sport for the mind.” To be successful, teams must have strong engineering skills and be well organized. Most basically, though, successful teams are those whose members have learned how to be good problem solvers.
So what makes a good problem solver? For these kids, certainly it involves creative imagination. Should your robot have an arm to lift the ball or a leg to kick it into the goal? Do you focus on offense or defense? And once you decided the big directions, how can you tweak your design to ensure best performance?
As a non-engineer, I’m not qualified to evaluate the engineering choices teams make. Rather, I serve as a “Team Attribute” judge, which means I ask questions like, “What are you doing to make your community a better place?” and “How are you mentoring younger kids to understand your values and aspire to be like you?” The FIRST organization encourages teams to see themselves as leaders and innovators and to aspire to the strong FIRST value system, and the kids’ responses are just amazing.
Both through their creations and in speaking with these young engineers, I get to see what is in these kids’ hearts. With the most dedicated and inspired teams, I see the same problem solving skills at play. The choices are humanist rather than engineering, and they all involve creative imagination and a blend of strategy, planning, collaboration, and execution. At the underlying core of it all, the decisions these kids make all stem from passion and perseverance… Robotics with heart!
I spend a lot my time thinking about problem solving… and if you are reading this, I bet you do also. It’s a very hard thing to define, and thus a hard thing to measure or test. But it’s really important!
Here’s what I believe: Problem solving starts deep in the emotions. It starts with a drive, a desire to get someplace, a belief that you can achieve. From there, you gain experience, by observing, modeling, trying, stretching yourself. Through this you learn confidence and perseverance, and then you’re on your way!
What do you believe makes a true problem solver? Please share your comments and let’s get the dialogue flowing!