Where education really happens

The other night, I got to witness first hand some of the hard work being done by the Oakton High School robotics team.  Two teams of high school students build machines to accomplish certain tasks, controlled by both pre-programming and direct remote controls.  It’s pretty amazing stuff to say the least.

What struck me about the room was the presence of community volunteers.  There were parents and teachers, of course, but also folks with no children or job at the school.  I spoke at length with one mentor, who had retired from his career, and gave some of his free time to the robotics team.  Several encouraged me to become a mentor as well.  When I joked that I doubted I could match the students’ knowledge of the subject matter, the reply was an only half-joking suggestion that the important thing was asking a lot of questions anyway.  The students don’t need people to teach them knowledge, just someone who can help them think through problems.

This became apparent when watching the students – tinkering with sensors, motors, nuts, bolts, and computers with a mix of determination and invincibility.  Whatever challenge they saw in their robots – a program not performing as expected, a misfiring sensor, or wheels failing to grip an incline – there were never questions about whether solutions existed, just an eagerness to find where they were hidden.

(There was a corporate sponsor too, which is good because the competition can cost a team up to $8,500 just to build a robot.)

It’s interesting that some form of the gizmos these high school students were building in a near-deserted school may one day exploring Mars.  It’s also interesting that few of the participants were getting paid any money to turn an unused high school shop class room into the staging are for the next generation of technology.  Even for just a few hours, it was nice to see a place where commitment to education was not measured in dollars and cents.

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