On Robots and Being Neighborly
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.
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.”
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.”
“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.”
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.