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by Carmen Thong

The BCM Lego robotics program is usually held during the fall competition season for the First Lego League (FLL), where teams of students sign up to ideate, collaborate, and build a robot in line with the theme of the season (Space travel, anyone? Or underwater exploration?). During the process, students have hands-on experience with skills valued in high tech fields, as well as soft skills such as teamwork, communication, and creative thinking. Most of all, building your own robot is just really, really, cool.

This past season, BCM’s robotics program had to pivot in order to work around the pandemic. BCM’s team of coaches came up with an ingenious alternative program. While they could not as efficiently incorporate values like collaboration, the program was able instead to teach students about project planning, independence, and self-motivation. The program was changed from a canned Lego set with a template of challenges to a robot set-up that each participant was able to build on their own at home.

The robot itself comes with assembly instructions (all 190 steps!), and involves everything from mechanical skills to coding. Individual students would have to plan milestones for themselves, and decide on timelines to work through the steps with the coaches, as well as navigate the software provided that helps them build the robot. While they did miss working with their peers, the individualized experience was really able to push each and every one of them to reach their goals on their own. The coaches this year were very encouraged to see the quieter students participate more as they had increased say over their own projects.

Three volunteer coaches, Howard Wong, Hubert Wong, and Sandeep Poonen, were able to sit down (over Zoom) to tell us a bit about the new plan, and their experience as volunteers.

Meet Howard

Howard is originally from New Zealand, and started getting connected to the EPA community when he was a grad student. While attending Lord’s Grace Christian Church, Howard noticed BCM in the church bulletin. He has been with the robotics program for 4 years now, and enjoys the experience of being able to coach kids to excel in whatever they choose. Howard believes in being able to serve in a practical sense, and he is especially fulfilled volunteering as a tutor and coach because,

“Growing up I had opportunities, and I want everyone to get the same kind of access I did.”

Meet Hubert

Hubert echoes Howard’s interest in helping others build their interest in their chosen fields. He volunteered to serve because he has decided that service needs to be done with regularity, and because he sees a responsibility in being part of a neighborhood.


“During COVID, it increasingly felt like there was no boundary between work and my life, and I didn’t want work to take over. I know that if I don’t work service into a part of my life in a certain regularity, then it becomes so easy to push it aside. We get distracted by the urgent things, and forget to put things into the right places. Regularity helps me to keep my eyes on the things that are important but not necessarily urgent. It helps me to practice what I want to be.”

Being Neighborly

“Jesus asks us to love our neighbors. Yet, despite living so close to EPA, I’ve never known the part of town north of university/east-side of the freeway before joining BCM. This year, I delivered the robotics kits to 8 places in one afternoon at EPA and got to know my neighbors better than before. When I showed up on a student’s doorstep to pass them their kits, I got to meet households up close, see them spending a family evening eating dinner together. BCM has helped me feel closer to my neighbors.”

Meet Sandeep

Sandeep shares the value of helping those around him in a “simply tangible way, not an abstract way.” He spoke about how he really valued being able to get to know one of the boys he was coaching, and to be able to “do small things with great love” (quoting Mother Teresa). Sandeep was introduced to BCM through conversations with his friend, Rajesh Philipos, about social justice issues.

Despite the large scope of the social issues he discussed, Sandeep committed himself to live out his beliefs rather than just talk about them.

He was influenced by this quote by William Booth: ‘To get a man soundly saved it is not enough to put on him a pair of new breeches, to give him regular work, or even to give him a University education. These things are all outside a man, and if the inside remains unchanged you have wasted your labor. You must in some way or other graft upon the man's nature a new nature, which has in it the element of the Divine.’

A Reciprocal Relationship

While they all set out in their service to help and encourage others, they too were grown and encouraged by their experience as a volunteer, and through the people they met. Howard was struck by the perseverance and ingenuity of the coaches, who had to navigate a new program and get a sense of camaraderie with their students over video calls. Sandeep found his one-on-one coaching valuable as he was able to truly get to know the students that he was helping. “I used to drop off my student after BCM every week. The second to last week, the student wanted me to come to the house and show me the artwork that he had made. This invitation for me into his ‘sanctuary’ to see something that he was proud of, was a meaningful small gesture.”

Hubert, on the other hand, speaks of his experience meeting one of the BCM parents two seasons ago. While sharing a hot coffee from McDonalds, Hubert finds out that the parent’s job is cutting down trees. Every day, he would climb up tall palm trees and cut them down, part by part. He would free-climb them with spikes and a harness that helped him hold on. “He thanked me for being the coach as he didn’t want his kids to have a job like his. He wanted his kids to explore new things and have good schooling and get to where they want to be… that was really touching for me to hear that from him. I saw that he and I were not that different, we try to have a good life so that our kids can have the right education and get to the place they want to be. We want them to do things that are meaningful, and we want our kids to be successful.

BCM is a way for me to share something that I have so that I can help others.”

While this year’s program was instituted in reaction to unlikely circumstances, Howard, Hubert and Sandeep think that it came with real advantages too, and they are eager to see how some of those advantages can be instituted into the BCM robotics program in future years.

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Covid is not a good thing. But God is always at work, using our circumstances for good. Leslie Tuakalau, BCM’s Bible Club Program Manager, sees the way this pandemic has helped reconnect parents and children, allowing parents to return to their primary role of influence in their children’s lives. “Parents had begun to expect church or technology to do their job, but the pandemic has been an opportunity for parents to teach their children about Jesus. BCM has the privilege of coming alongside parents, to partner with them, to support them as they raise up their children in the ways of the Lord.”

Covid has forced Bible Clubs to operate virtually, with clubs meeting weekly in addition to small group huddles throughout the week. “The volunteers have been remarkable, trying to figure out what’s best for the kids, always willing to go the extra mile to make a student feel special, to let them know that God loves them,” glows Leslie. In the Westside Bible Club, students are encouraged to do something positive each week, like help with a chore, create a piece of art or help a sibling. The entries are submitted to Maria, one of the volunteer leaders, who picks a name out of a hat; the winner receives a pizza for their family.

In one of the other clubs, God has been at work in Michael’s* life. When Bible Club was in-person, Michael was constantly demanding attention and it was difficult to work with him. Now that Bible Club is virtual, the leaders are able to give him extra attention and have learned so much more about him: his love for animals and desire to be a vet, his knowledge and love for cars. He has bonded with the volunteers as they have answered his many, many questions and they are excited to see how God uses him as he grows and matures. Michael even invited one of the volunteers to come to his house so he could help train her dog. During her masked and socially distant visit, he helped train her dog to sit and do tricks.

Engaging with the students in prayer has been another of Leslie’s highlights. “One of the students who is new to Bible Club is willing to pray for the group and when she prays, it’s like listening in on her conversation with God, like she’s really having a chat with a friend.” During the huddles, students focus on a scripture in their prayer journal and Leslie is constantly touched by how much gratitude they have, even in the midst of a challenge like Covid. “I love being part of training them to be thankful to God, even in times of struggle.”

As we head into 2021, there are still many challenges due to Covid. “I am constantly thinking about the students, how can we be a listening ear, how can we be responsive? During this time of isolation, making sure the students are heard is especially important. The students spend so much time online, and I want to make sure we are not just drilling God’s Word into them, but being a living example of God’s love, bringing hope through relationships.”

*Name changed for privacy

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While there were no large family gatherings, parties with friends or dinners out, we celebrate because Rosie just graduated from UC Merced this month with a degree in Computer Science and Engineering!

Rosie has been part of the BCM family for many years, but Covid created a new opportunity for her to give back. Rosie was preparing to finish up her final semester at UC Merced when she heard that all of her classes were going online. She decided to move back home to the Bay Area to be near family, and that’s when she got a call asking if she might be interested in a part time job at BCM. Rosie said yes and jumped into the world of robotics and STEM offerings at BCM.

Since September, Rosie has been coordinating three STEM offerings at BCM: Lego Robotics for elementary and middle school students, the high school FRC team (First Robotics Competition) and Innoverge, a hands-on STEM program for elementary students. As coordinator, Rosie makes sure that everything runs smoothly. This involves communicating with both parents and coaches, monitoring Covid protocols, making sure registration forms are complete, gathering supplies, organizing zoom meetings and more.

Rosie’s first introduction to technology and coding came through BCM, where she competed in the Technovation Challenge as a freshman in high school as part of the EPA Chica Squad. She never imagined she would come back and be part of introducing the same topics to BCM’s current students. “It’s been cool to see everything come full circle,” says Rosie. She’s been impressed with how independent, knowledgeable and invested BCM’s current high school students are. This fall, each student was supplied with minimal robot parts: wheels, a motor and wire. With the virtual support of their volunteer coaches, they each built a robot to compete in a circuit and drag race competition. One used a shoe box, another a coffee cup. “I was impressed with their creativity and knowledge of robotics; they all had a functioning robot for the showcase.”

Working with Innoverge, an interactive workshop that introduces elementary students to STEM topics, has also been a highlight for Rosie. She enjoys helping students in-person as their virtual instructor guides the weekly activities. Many of the students were shy and unsure at the beginning, but once they opened up, they were eager to learn each week. One student exclaimed at the end of a session, “What’s next, what’s next?! I’ll be sure to be here next week!” She has loved seeing the students come up with ideas and suggestions, whether studying mechanical engineering to design and build a roller coaster or learning computer science to code a greeting card. Each week she gets to experience their joy and excitement in person as they see their projects come to life.

God has been at work in Lego Robotics through the work of a dedicated team of volunteer coaches. “I am amazed at the commitment of the coaches; it’s a big commitment and there are so many great coaches working one-on-one with the students.” At the start of the season, everything was virtual and one student was especially frustrated and kept getting stuck while working on his robot. He and his coach decided to meet outdoors at BCM, and Rosie was amazed to see the frustration transition to excitement as the student received the support he needed to build and program his robot. The student and coach developed a significant relationship, the student even inviting the coach to his home as an expression of how meaningful their relationship had become. Given the lack of in-person interaction during Covid, this coach’s investment was both technically and relationally impactful.

“I’ve seen God at work through the coaches and want to say a big thank you to all of the coaches – without them these programs wouldn’t happen.” Rosie is grateful to be part of providing in-person programming during a time when most students are at attending school virtually. She also loves helping spark a joy for science and looks forward to 2021 and being part of more moments of creativity, learning and excitement.

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