Robochicks on the march

Kids are competing in tournaments with their Lego Mindstorm robots, writes Mercury News columnist Dean Takahashi, whose daughter competes on the all-girl Robochick team.

Lego tapped the Mindstorms fans to help design the new robot kit. The new NXT model has a smarter brain with a 32-bit ARM microprocessor that replaces the older 8-bit RCX brain. You can attach motors with gears to it and equip it with sensors that can detect sound, touch, light or ultrasonic waves.

When the Robochicks went to the tournament, their robot failed to move a pile of bricks. They rewrote the program in less than 20 minutes, fixed the robot and won.

Robotics is catching on with a wide range of kids. About a third of robotics competitors are girls, Takahashi writes. But it really helps to have technically savvy parents to help teams get started. This is a great volunteer opportunity for retired engineers and college students: Sponsor a robotics team in low-income school or Boys’ and Girls’ Club.

About Joanne


  1. Once upon a time, I volunteered with Girl Scout troops to help the girls earn their Computing badge. Back then, the mere fact that I owned one was enough to qualify me for this task.

  2. As a FLL team coach, I have mixed feelings about the tournament. The whole setup is based on the modern educational ethic of hands-on learning; a variation of discovery learning. Coaches are not supposed to help too much. Students are supposed to figure things out. This doesn’t happen because it isn’t an effective learning method – and there are deadlines. Kids learn faster and better when the coaches (teachers) teach. The engineering parents who are involved know that implicitly.

    There are two parts; the robotics part and the project part. They are two separate tasks. Because of time constraints, it’s very hard for kids to be involved with all jobs. This means that just a few kids do the actual programming of the robot. Add to that the difficulty of getting much done in after-school sessions once or twice a week. Our team’s NXT robot is at our house over the holidays so that my son can work on the programs. Projects with deadlines may teach kids about real world realities, but one of those realities is to get the project done, not be a method for learning. In the real world, projects are not used for teaching. Our team members would learn more without the project and deadlines.

    For the project part of the tournament, the kids have to research nanotechnology and then:

    “Design an improvement for the existing nanotechnology, or choose a potential application that faces a challenge and solve it.”

    I read on their web site somewhere that there are no right or wrong answers. They are interested in having kids use their creative juices and go with it. It’s a good thing, because the kids barely know what a molecule is. Our team is planning to do a skit. Once again, it’s the modern educational ethic of doing something before they have the required basic knowledge and skills. This is not an effective learning method.

    Normally, projects are used after students have learned the material and mastered basic skills. The project is where the student has to put those skills to proper use on some real world application, and will be graded on results, not effort and creativity. Somehow, the educational community thinks that using projects as a top-down method for learning represents the real world. It does not in any way, shape, or form. If that were true, then students could skip college and companies would sign them on as apprentices.

    “But it really helps to have technically savvy parents to help teams get started.”

    The reason is that these parents do much, much more than facilitate. They teach! Can you imagine how long it would take students to figure out how to calibrate the robot on their own? When you want the robot to turn 90 degrees, you can’t just put 90 degrees into the motor command.

    How about – It really helps to have parents at home who teach to have successful kids at school.