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Take things one step at a time: A lesson for robotics, and life

This week we began our summer robotics camp, and this morning we spent an hour or so talking about the engineering process and the RoboKai Way.


The engineering process is an iterative process that helps engineers conceive, design, build, and test their work. At RoboKai, we use the acronym IDEA, which stands for:

  • Identify your challenge.

  • Design a solution.

  • Engineer a prototype.

  • Analyze your test results.

If the challenge isn't met, you do it all over again until you find success.


Identifying the challenge may seem like the easiest step, but it's really not. Often, kids consider the challenge to be something like this: I want to build a robot that can destroy other people's robots! But what the heck does that really mean?


We teach the kids to break things down into smaller challenges. Focused challenges. Stuff that may seem obvious, but really is not.


For example, let's say a robot needs to move around and be able to pick up objects. Start with the moving. Does it need to drive forward and backward? How will it turn? Will it need to be able to strafe? How fast should it go? Does it need to be able to go over obstacles? Each one of these challenges should be tackled one at a time. Why? Because some of these tasks have complicated relationships with each other, or may even be at odds with each other.


RoboKai members building a clawbot.
Taking steps one at a time is key to minimizing and identifying mistakes.

We try to equate the simplification process to math, which most kids get. Let's say I want to add six numbers: 123 + 456 + 768 + 101112 + 131415 + 161718. It's possible that someone could look at all six numbers and immediately figure out the solution, but likely not. Rather, we break the number down into more manageable challenges, something like this: 123 + 456 and 789 + 101112 and 131415 + 161718.


But you can break these down even further. For the first set, for example, you could say 100 + 400 and 20 + 50 and 3 + 6. That's real easy for most people, and you are less likely to make a mistake.


Breaking things down into simple challenges may seem tedious and take longer, but it's more likely to result in a correct solution. And when you do make mistakes, you'll be able to spot them easily.


Coaching robotics has made me realize how useful this approach to problem-solving is in life. I try to apply it to any challenge I face. I start the brainstorming process by breaking things down in their simplest parts. If I am still struggling, I simplify more. Eventually, it'll all start coming together.


The kids who come to RoboKai tend to be the kind of kids who learn quickly, and as a result they don't develop good "step-by-step" thinking skills. They think ahead and want to take shortcuts. They find breaking things down to be tedious and boring.


The problem comes when they encounter harder and harder challenges, where no human mind is capable of "just getting it." One day they will face a challenge whose solution doesn't come quickly, and it may cause them to get anxious or stressed, or feel like a failure. It can create a lot of stress in school and work down the road if they don't have the skills to simplify and persevere.


That's why we focus on these processes so much at RoboKai. We know the kids who embrace them will be happier and healthier as they pursue their dreams.

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