A good day at GEMS


On Thursday afternoons, I volunteer at the local middle school with a program called GEMS, for “Girls in Engineering, Math, and Science”. From September to January, they do a LEGO robotics project. Usually, half the time is spent looking for stuff in the classroom or storage closet (even worse clutter than my basement referenced earlier), and another 40% spent on dealing with the psychology of thirty or so middle school girls, with only 10% actually teaching or coaching.
Today was terrific, though. It was probably a good 80% productive time. And the relatively small psych portion could be counted as life coaching, as it was about helping two very smart and strong-willed kids, “Rainbow” and “Vivaldi”, work together even with very different ideas about their robot. The official FLL term is “gracious professionalism“, a difficult skill for twelve-year-olds. Rainbow has been in the program for two years now, so she’s fairly experienced. Vivaldi is also a seventh-grader, very intense and fast-talking. Vivaldi’s design was low and long, with some clear flaws, but it worked moderately well. Not bad for October. Rainbow’s concept was quite a bit more complex, and not yet built. So I had to talk them through the ideas of try something, see what works, and fix the flaws. It helps that starting next week they will have the chance to work with a second robot, so they’ll be able to see the strengths and weaknesses of both designs.
Another group -well, let’s just say they learned the importance of following directions. This team was fifth and sixth graders, so lower experience levels. They were trying to follow the wordless directions (think IKEA, without the hex wrench) for a fairly complicated build and had really gotten confused. I had to figure out where they had gone astray (step four of about thirty) and get them re-oriented.
And a third group was really great. They built a robot and programmed it to move around, including using an auxiliary arm. If they can apply those skills to the actual game setup, they’ve got good potential. It was really fun to see one girl literally dancing with joy at what she’d achieved.
I try to set a “chocolate challenge” each week, where reaching some goal earns the teams a Hershey’s Kiss each. For the robot part, it’s easy to do a tangible target: build a moving bot, reach a target, or (later in the season) complete a board mission. For the research project, it’s a little more long-term, but I did give each team a goal and three of the four teams worked toward it. So two of the teams won double chocolate this week, based on good research and good robotics.

All in all, it was a good day for informal science education.

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