Sunday, June 26, 2005

My Dinner with Mr. Jong

Robotics and I don't go back too far. I only started to involve myself with the pasttime earlier this year when my director at High Tech Middle asked me if I would be the coach for the school Botball team ( Once word had spread among the school community that I would be taking the reins of the team (regional champions the year before), Robots and I began to get much more comfortable with one another.
I started out mentoring a robotics team from school associated with a local competition at Legoland, the First Lego League. In general, the challenges and rules of Lego League are less difficult than those of Botball. For example, you are allowed to grab, position, and modify your robot in Lego League once the competition has begun. The two competitions do have many similarities though (both are timed competitions requiring pre-programmed robots built from Legos to complete various tasks on a ping-pong sized table in an effort to accumulate more points than the opposing team), and by the time the Lego League tournament rolled around, I was feeling ready to take the next step in my Robotics career.
I began teaching a robotics class at High Tech as an elective for the second semester. Borrowing supplies from the high school and several lesson ideas from it's director and robotics teacher, I was able to attract a class of about 20 students. Unfortunately, I was still vastly unfamiliar with the programming language and intracacies of Botball robotic engines and was unable to instruct the class as effectively as I would have liked. Fortunately, about two weeks into the semester the Botball organizers held their annual tournament information meeting. The meeting lasted for sixteen hours over one weekend, and while the highlight for most teams is finally getting to see what the year's tournament challenge will be, for me the highlight was getting some instruction on programming the robots.
Armed with my newly acquired skills I returned to school and my elective course with renewed confidence. I also began serious meetings after school with those students who were interested in participating on the team and in the tournament and discovered coaching to be much more difficult than teaching. The main reason for this is because students participate in after school clubs for pleasure, and striking the balance between productivity and fun without the availability of such threats as phone calls home or failing grades is simply challenging (and frustrating). Ultimately we placed 11th out of about 40 teams. Not bad, but definitely leaving room for improvement. All of this is to say that robotics has become an unexpected part of my life recently, and the opportunities it regularly presents to me are surprising.
Such an opportunity presented itself yesterday afternoon when Mr. Xu told me about a friend of his who wanted to take me out to dinner.
"He's interested in doing robotics at his school." I was told.
I'm always game for a good robot talk, and that this one presented the added benefit of a non-KFC dinner was just icing on the cake.
Around 7 o'clock I was watching the Top Ten Dunks of the basketball season on NBA Action (I think the best was Robert Horry in game 5 of the finals after he faked the three, but the show was taped before that had happened), when Mr. Xu called me on the cell phone I've been given. I met him at the gate of the elementary school and we were both picked up by Mr. Jong and Marcie, an English teacher at the school Mr. Jong oversees.
The car ride was half of the fun, as I was finally able to explore a little more of Shenzhen, but the restaurant we went to was the real highlight. Perched atop a small hill that peers over various buildings the restaurant is a three-story structure with a tea house on the first floor. All wood floors and tables lined the perimeter of the room with bamboo stalks threaded through lattice in the ceiling. Tall windows at the front of the building look out on an immaculate Chinese garden with a gazebo and bridges spanning small waterways before a clear view of the far off dusk horizon. We sat down at a small table with two wood loveseats next to the window and I talked to Marcie about her school schedule while Mr. Jong and Xu ordered.
I haven't been to enough restaurants to know for sure, but I think Chinese people take an inordinate amount of time to order their meals. It must have taken fifteen minutes to decide what we would have, a process made all the more uncomfortable by the fact that the servers wait tableside for the entire process. At one point last night we even had a second waitress visit the table to help the the process. It really didn't hinder my enjoyment too much, as it offered me the opportunity to get some background information on Marcie's teaching, which you will recall from my last post is the potential center of my project work here.
Marcie teaches first grade English to four different classes of students from about 8 am until 11:30 am. Unlike at American schools, Chinese students rotate teachers and subjects from the start of their academic career. (Perhaps this is an area of study I could exploit if the whole ESL thing doesn't go over well with Mr. Wong). From 11:30 until 2:30 the whole school takes a break. Teachers take a nap and maybe grade some papers or plan lessons. Students take a nap at the school or may even return home for lunch and a rest. After 2:30 the students return to school for more classes centered around electives and physical fitness that last until 5:30. During this time Marcie is responsible for aiding the other teachers. It is quite a different job from what I do, and was fascinating to learn about.
After a while the food arrived and we got around to talking about robots. My hosts are all under the impression that the U.S. is much further ahead of China with respect to Science education. This seems to contradict what I read in Newsweek about the number of participants from both countries in a global science competition, but I figured they had a better pulse of what's happening in Chinese schools than I did. Mr. Jong is hopeful that the implementation of a robotics club could help some of his students advance their scientific knowledge. I told him he's probably right. Robotics as a study is highly scientific, especially if one incorporates programming into it. It facilitates logic and lateral thinking, all aspects of the scientific method, creative thinking, problem solving, math, and probably a few areas of development I've forgotten. The only problem is the high initial cost of setting up a team.
We talked about what the school could afford, how they might be able to get started in Botball, and strategies for setting up an effective after school program. I even wrote out a short code to give them an idea of what the students would have to learn to participate effectively. I became really impressed by the dedication all three of my hosts showed towards the idea. After all, here they all were at 9pm on a Sunday night, discussing with someone who didn't even speak their language a subject that probably none of them would tackle directly. And yet their commitment and resolve was clear.
For me, the most exciting part of the evening arose when I began to tell them about my own plans for Botball next year at High Tech Middle. Botball team registration fees are about $2500, a sum that weighed heavily on my mind last year as I watched several team members waste valuable practice time. This year I decided a preliminary tournament could help solve this problem. Teams from the school could organize themselves and participate in a tournament of our own design. Perhaps just recycling one of the previous year's tasks from Botball. In any case, the two top teams from the preliminary tournament would then be invited to participate in the botball tournament. Hopefully, by rewarding the highest achievers at the onset, this strategy would ensure that only dedicated students made it onto the Botball team.
While explaining this to my hosts, it occurred to me that they might be able to save some money on Botball registration by simply taking part in our own High Tech Tournament. It wouldn't have the same level of intensity as Botball, but since the school was just starting its program from scratch, participating in Botball during their first year might not be much more than a waste of money anyway. I mentioned the idea at the table and seemed to get a positive response, so I'm not sure what will happen at this point. I've already e-mailed the powers that be at Botball, and I haven't discussed any of this with anyone at High Tech. Still, I think these are exciting developments for the students here as well as those stateside. I'll be sure to keep you all up to date. Robots Baby! -joe

No comments: