I recently started my ninth year as a mentor for the Lawrence MA “Gearheadz” High School FIRST robotics team. FIRST is a non-profit program that serves to inspire young people's interest and participation in science and technology through robotic competition. Over the years it has occurred to me how this experience very much parallels the “real-world” of product development. Both have to deal with challenges that present themselves at the start of any new project, like cost, schedule, and resources. In both cases, there is never enough time or budget. Engineers, admit it: When have you felt that, at the end of a project, you had plenty of both? And from a people side, we all have to learn to work efficiently with team members of varying skill sets and levels, including those who may not yet have developed the necessary skills to deal with a project’s challenges. In this post, I present some of the commonalities I have observed between students in an inner-city high school robotics club and professional designers and engineers who constantly learn new methods, get inspired to solve the hard problems, and ultimately develop a useful device.
Product development firms, like Farm, must constantly generate creative solutions by relying on two fundamental elements: 1) a sturdy yet flexible foundation of a development process, and 2) creative individuals. Process, to a large degree, is a map of those common steps required to complete the journey from problem to solution, or in Farm’s case, from the seed of an idea to the implemented end product. Farm’s process is based on these elements:
- Strategy (e.g., definition of user, marketing, and business needs)
- Specifications and planning (e.g., definition of design inputs and general planning)
- Development (e.g., generation of product concepts through prototyping)
- Verification and validation (e.g., testing to ensure the device does what it’s supposed to do)
- Transfer into production
Farm’s process has played a critical role in all sorts of successful medical device projects, from drug delivery devices to surgical robots to wearable casts.
As for the second critical element: The creative individual. At Farm, we look for a balance of many attributes in our technical staff; he/she is open-minded, an out-of-box thinker, internally motivated, intellectually curious, knowledgeable in multiple manufacturing processes, can conceptualize appropriate-to-the-market concepts, versatile in typical design tools (e.g., CAD), and a team thinker (ability to work on abstract concepts in a group setting). There is no ideal proportion of these skillsets, as each individual brings different backgrounds and personal strengths.
This is a great place to start, but like a good spaghetti sauce base, these elements are only the core ingredients. We still need to add more flavors, a bit of personality, and enough time to bring it all together. To stay sharp and grow, we all need to stretch ourselves. This is made easier when the company culture encourages the synergizing of personal and company interests by sponsoring training events that range from internally-developed courses on Design for Experiments to Web-based courses on Geometric Dimensioning and Tolerancing to intellectual property licensing exams.
And to foster a positive work atmosphere, organizations should not forget to include the fun stuff like group cook-outs, biking treks through the woods, or ultimate Frisbee games, as these social events contribute tremendously to a cooperative environment, which is key for the long-term health of an organization. This is the building a team part... it takes time for people to gel and get into a groove.
So how does this relate to a FIRST high school robotics club?
Let’s first consider the process. The odds are that a process-starved professional organization will eventually fester into true anarchy (and ultimately bankruptcy!); the only question is when. Similarly in a high school club, any teacher will agree that should you dare to combine the youthful energy, immaturity, and hormonal “issues” of teenagers with no process, then an even more elevated level of anarchy will manifest itself and at a much more accelerated rate.
Drawing from my experiences, I’d like to leave you with a few takeaways, which are observations that apply to both the FIRST high school robotics program and the “real world” of product development. Recognizing these similarities should help bring home the pertinence of the robotics program for today’s youth as well as illustrate how professionals can gain valuable usable experience by contributing to such programs.
Takeaway #1: Mentoring kids offers a vehicle for hyper-fast-paced training for a professional by: 1) evaluating how robust your process is (describing a process to a teenager is usually harder than to a professional peer or direct report), and 2) sharpening your saw on how to recognize potential weaknesses for additional training. This could be considered a kind of “HALT (Highly Accelerated Life Test) for managers” training program. To be sure you’ll see the defects right away in your management techniques and abilities. (And you’ll have to fix them without delay to keep things rolling.)
Takeaway #2: Tossing these high school kids into such new spaces that they are not yet fully prepared for can give them wonderful exposure to the dynamics of working in a real-world group, including having to learn technical and team-related skills “on the job.” Though on a different scale, young professionals also experience this perspective, so make a point to nudge your less experienced staff into higher-level tasks from time to time. It’s okay to try something, be challenged, and struggle a little as it is all a part of the learning process!
Now let’s consider the “staff”. In a professional setting, you can usually count on the trainee to already have a sound background through some combination of formal education and/or experience. Not so in the case of the high school robotics club. In most cases for the Gearheadz, we need to teach fundamental things like how to drill a hole (safely and relatively precisely) long before we address the more complicated aspects of conceptualizing or the fundamentals of mechanical and electronics elements and programming. The process is important and it takes time. Eventually, meeting on multiple evenings each week and on Saturdays during the six-week winter build season, the kids all experience how to turn a problem statement (the rules of the game that change from year to year) into concepts, and ultimately into a 100 pound, four-foot-tall remote controlled robot that competes with and against five other robots developed by similar teams from all over the world.
Takeaway #3: Training needs to be delivered in a timely fashion and at an appropriate level. Especially true when the student is taking his/her first steps, but this also applies at any experience level. None of us like it when the subject matter is presented at too high or too low a level. Knowing your audience (and being flexible) is the mantra for anyone who teaches or makes presentations.
In the end, if we all don't keep focused on the need to constantly train the less experienced as well as ourselves, then we take the first step towards their, as well as our, own obsolescence.
And what about the fun stuff? “Fun” and "success" can have many different definitions, but they’re not necessarily mutually exclusive. For us Gearheadz mentors, we watch for the blood, sweat, and tears that every student puts into each robot every year and how it can positively impact lives. One particularly memorable moment for me was that shriek of excitement from a freshman after drilling her first hole using the drill press. The student was later voted president of the robotics club as a senior and is now a senior robotics major at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Another success is the quiet kid with struggling grades who eventually raised his grades to the team’s standards and morphed into a leader and a skilled robot driver. Still another is last year's co-captain, who joined the team as a junior with no intention of majoring in a science, but is now an engineering major in college.
Takeaway #4: Though it is still called work, keep it fun. You don’t need to be a teenager to admit that life is too short to not have fun!
In conclusion, there is no longer any question that America needs to bring its A-game to escalating the understanding of the sciences by today's students from kindergarten through college. Unfortunately, too many finger this as a problem for the schools to address. However, there are many opportunities for people to pitch in to help solve the problem, to expose kids to this fascinating world of technology, to permit a kid to practice leadership as part of a team, to further motivate the kid who already has that sparkle of interest in his/her eyes, or to draw the aimless kid away from the seemingly inevitable dead-end choice. FIRST is one of these programs.
And we as professionals get to sharpen our “work” skills in the mean time!