Friday, January 15, 2010

Awesome Eyeballs

I’m not sure I’m smarter than a second grader.

When I visited MIT back in September, I spoke with Professor Woodie Flowers after his presentation on FIRST Robotics & Lego League (Lego League is the ‘little league' for the Robotics challenge). After his very inspiring introduction to the program, I went up to say ‘hello,’ express my general admiration (he is a demi-god of mechanical engineering after all), and ask some questions.

In his friendly sort-of-way, he threw down the gauntlet. I had made the mistake of thanking him for something. I should know better. No, he didn’t say ‘you’re welcome.’ He smiled broadly.

“You owe me, then. Start a team.”

Oops. I should know better.

I was thinking about it when I ran into an old friend outside of the 10-250 lecture hall. A short conversation made it clear his kids were only slightly older than mine, and he was starting a Lego League team this year. The third member of our conversation gushed about her experience.

“It was so incredible. You’ll never, ever regret it,” she went on emphatically. “My kids love it. I really have no choice now that I’ve started it.”
Within a week of returning to Ohio, my team was fully registered, Legos were on the way, the calendar established, and my fate was sealed.

I didn’t think it would be that inspiring, but it would be fun. I would take it for what it was and see where it went. I was sure she was exaggerating.

Except for one thing, I was wrong. It was that inspiring. It was just as awesome as she had described, except the parts that were even better.

The kids were amazing.

Oh, yes, they were jumpy and noisy and a little wild on Friday afternoons, but you’ve never seen kids more excited about learning. I was very prepared for the sessions, of course, but I was never prepared for where the kids would take the sessions.

Have you ever brainstormed with second graders??

I can assure you, I had nothing to do with the name “Awesome Eyeballs.” In fact, if I had taken the time to look, I imagine the mothers were rolling their eyeballs behind the kids. We shrugged our shoulders and all gave three cheers for the “Awesome Eyeballs.”

I also had nothing to do with the subject we studied.

The task was to decide on an object and learn about how that object moved from wherever it was made or grown to where the kids were now. I started by drawing a value chain of a pretzel on freezer paper across my dining room wall.

Did you know that kids understand value chain analysis? They understood it. They added to it. They thought about it. And, while I was busy scribbling all the kids’ thoughts across my wall, someone ate my pretzel (and the rest giggled uncontrollably).

So, we brainstormed ideas for things to analyze. One of the kids suggested electricity, and there was no going back. A mother gave me a look of mild horror. Electricity?? But, it was electricity: too late.

And so I spent a little time contemplating how to explain electricity, “electrons in motion” to second graders. They wanted to know all the details so badly. I wasn’t going to get off easily with this crowd.

We started from the beginning. I gave them magnets and safety pins to feel how magnets pull on the electrons in metal. We talked about how magnets pull electrons in wires to start them in motion. I made up a game in which the kids were the wire and they passed Duplo block “electrons,” but only one at a time, and the electrons could not pass and had to stop if one stopped and their circuit was broken.

They understood everything immediately.

They asked smart questions and made even smarter observations. We easily brainstormed the electron value chain on a new piece of freezer paper, and each child went home to investigate his or her own piece of that chain on the internet.

At the next meeting, they each presented their newfound knowledge to the rest of the team. You could tell they were proud. You could tell they understood it. They brought in pictures and hand-written notes. One of the mothers brought in a circuit with a battery and a lightbulb. Another mother confessed to finding electro-magnetism interesting.

Oh, yes, and we used Legos too.

At one of the early and boisterous sessions, I asked them to build the strongest tower they could out of Legos. Except, of course, they only had ten minutes and they were absolutely not allowed to say a single word or make a noise.

For ten beautiful minutes, I heard nothing but the sound of clinking Legos. I’ve never seen second graders so focused and quiet.

They used Legos at every session, but towards the end we focused on building our electrical grid – wind mill, substation, high-tension power lines, etc. The creativity was astonishing. They worked in teams of two or three on each piece.

As time went on, the parents came up with more and more eyeball themed items. I had always planned on making them t-shirts for the expo, but as time drew near I felt increasingly compelled to make it a truly “awesome” eyeball. They deserved it.

They needed a shirt that would match their pride. The logo designed itself. I just happened to be holding the pencil.

The day of the Expo, they all arrived promptly wearing their t-shirts and eyeball glasses. They were prepared to explain their work. They took turns speaking. They answered the judge’s questions and provided additional information. They were truly an awesome team.

On the way into the auditorium to receive their trophy, they started high-five-ing the other teams as they passed.

My cheeks turned pink with pride.

Now I’m one of “them.” I’m committed, and gushing, and the children will require me to coach them again. Two of them even sent me 'thank you' notes, with hand-drawn pictures. I have "no choice." My fate is sealed.

All of the sudden, I want to thank Woodie Flowers all over again.

Maybe I will. I just don’t learn my lessons as well as those second graders.


AreWeThereYet? said...

MITMommy, you are AWESOME! We are just lucky to linger in your light. Thank you for doing this!

Happy memories. Pride. Humor. Exhaustion. The most rewarding after school program we have tried (and we do them all).

They learned. They really, really learned something. And it was something that felt out of my realm to teach them as their mom. Thanks coach!

2 of your Awesome Eyeballs

amyjr said...

Awesome! I wish i knew about this since I have a curious second grader.
Very inspiring and you are very clever.

MIT Mommy said...

There Yet? - Stop it. Stop it. I'm wiping off the cyber kisses.

Amy - The drawback of my short turn around was the inability to include very many people this year. I am planning to have an info session for interested parents, in Feb/Mar. I can't do multiple teams myself, but I can certainly help people get started with their own teams.

The FIRST support structure is very good.

Brigette said...

Fabulous!!!! I am in AWE of you, AWEsome Eyeball Mom!

Angela said...

Wow, wow and more wow! I remember you mentioning that to me when we met. And I failed to act and you acted above and beyond!

Reminds me of the time before kids where I did some mentoring at the Boston Latin Academy.

I really ought to do the same. You've inspired me.

Working Glass Gal said...

I, too, am a gushing fan of Prof. Flowers. But you, young lady, you are my new hero. Love, K

OHmommy said...

Very cool indeed. Im with amyjr and wished I knew about this. Sounds awesome.

Christine said...

Yes, your fate is sealed.

We're on our fourth year and I'm now coaching two different levels of teams (with my kids on both teams).

The future will be amazing, wonderful, fantastic, incredible and lots of other things you can't yet imagine.

But you will remember this moment when your fate was sealed.

Enjoy the ride!

This year has been the wildest yet.

Laura said...

Forget little scientists, you need to start your own after school program through the rec center. And if you do it at the rec center my kids can go too!

Mojave Momma said...

This is great. You are brave.

tiger said...


I LOVE YOU said...


Ani said...

Hey there!

Greetings from the other Eastern end of Ohio (all the way south, in Athens). It looks like we may have been at MIT around the same time.

I followed the link from the MIT K-12 STEM Facebook group. I am about to embark on my first LegoFIRST adventure! Thank you for posting about your experience, if you are ever in this neck of the woods, feel free to look me up.

Ana L. Rosado Feger
MIT '92

Erin F. said...

So...can a course 4 do this?!?! So inspiring! The most rewarding thing is to see the kids go beyond our (and their own) expectations.

I'm looking into the Lego League now!!!

Anonymous said...

I mentor a FIRST FRC team (2102, Team Paradox) at a local high school, and our kids help with the FLL as part of their personal development/engineering inspiration, etc. If there's a high school team close by, you may want to connect to them as well. It's been really nice for kids working with kids. Last year some of our ninth graders were so much more comfortable because they had met us through FLL.
Karen (Heller) des Jardins
Course II, '81

vanzare apartamente cluj said...

This are great memories I am happy that you and your kinds have enjoy yourself so good .. >:D<