Last week I stumbled upon the movie “Spare Parts.” In it, a substitute teacher, who was an engineer, agreed to sponsor and take a group of rag-tag high schoolers to the US Underwater Robotics Competition—College Division. I watched in awe. Then I flashed back to my group of society-deemed “incorrigible” students and felt an instant connection.
In my 23rd year of teaching, I was at the Middle Alternative School, with mostly adjudicated youth. I had been in charge of the math/reading lab for five years with my math and computer science background.
One day my Principal walked into the lab, where I was working on a computer. He sat beside me and said, “D’Annunzio. I want to start a robotics class here. Who do you think should teach it?” Immediately, I said, “ME!!” He looked at me quizzically. After all, I’d been out of college for a long time. My side job at the school was doing IT for the building, and everything I knew I’d taught myself. I knew I was up to the challenge! He consented.
I contacted my mentor at UL, and we brainstormed which robots had a programming language suitable for my Middle Schoolers. He also put me in contact with one of the District Tech people who had some experience in this area.
After much discussion, I went to my Principal with my plans, and he gave me the green-light to order the robots and other needed equipment.
It was summer break, and the day the robots arrived, I received a call from our school’s bookkeeper.
I rushed to the school and picked up the order. Excitedly, I went home and opened the boxes.
We purchased Lego Mindstorms NXT, which came with what looked like 1,000 pieces for each robot. I pulled out the directions and attempted to build one.
I worked on the first one for over three hours and became quickly frustrated. Luckily, my two sons were home and curious about what I was building. Jayce took over my attempt, taking most of it apart as I had blundered the assembly. Bain started making a new one. The first two robots were built by them in under an hour!
I then installed the Mindstorms software on my laptop and began to teach myself how to program the robots. During my undergrad program, I’d studied at least five computer languages, so this part was much more manageable.
I spent that summer learning the coding and watched videos to make sure my robots performed each task correctly.
I wrote a curriculum for class and was very excited to bring robotics into my students’ lives.
Things went surprisingly well! The kids responded very well to the robots and took to programming immediately. Due to the Alternative nature of the school, my classes had 15 students in them. Each student had a laptop for programming and a robot. Each time a new behavior was programmed, they would download it to the android and test it. I never sat down! The kids were everywhere—but engaged—and I walked around checking off each of their correct challenges on the ledger that I’d created. Even if the kid was having an off day, the excitement of programming robots and seeing the new behaviors kept them focused.
They learned about the sensors: light, ultrasonic, sound, gyro, color, and touch. Part of the curriculum was that they had to know how each sensor performed before they could begin to program. And they did! These students, labeled as “losers,” were learning high-tech information and coding! I loved being a teacher.
I developed my first-period class by choosing students who possessed the understanding to build and program robots. They were misfits, for sure, but they were smart!
I found out about a robotics competition that would take place in my District in March. I spoke with my students about it and asked them to commit to completing the project. To my delight, they eagerly accepted the challenge. I secured a place in the competition and ordered the mat and obstacles so we could practice.
And, practice they did!
Our school did not have extracurricular activities, so we were limited to only three to four hours of practice a week.
In their brilliant minds, they broke apart each task and quickly figured out each team member’s strength. Then they started tackling the challenge. One was a programmer. Two of them began to build the attachments we needed to complete the tasks. The last of the four was the controller. He was in charge of positioning the robot at a precise angle to achieve each of the missions.
The District had issues securing a site for the competition. I spoke with my Principal, and he permitted me to host. I was excited and nervous as the competition date approached.
Since my students couldn’t yet drive, another issue was making sure they could get to school that Saturday morning. The alternative school wasn’t “in-district” for any of them, which meant that their parents or guardian would have to drive them to school that Saturday. That unnerved me. The possibility of any of the integral team members not showing up weighed on my mind.
The date arrived. I got to school early to open up and place the signs directing students and observers to the requisite places. The school began filling up with students and observers, and of course the judges. Three of my team were there 30 minutes before we started. I had a knot in my stomach. The final member got there with five minutes to spare.
We huddled. The team discussed strategy. Then the pull for the order of performance happened. We pulled FIRST. That meant we wouldn’t have the benefit of observing the other teams before our time. The crowd was hushed as we proceeded to the table. My team had decided not to use a sound sensor due to the possibility of crowd noise interfering with the tasks. Brian positioned the robot. And when the buzzer rang, he pressed the start button as we all held our breath, waiting to see if we could pull off, under pressure, what we’d done so many times in class.
The table that the mat was on was slightly different than our robotics table. We were aware that a fraction of an inch would throw off our previous calculations. The bot went through the first four tasks, and then, as we’d feared, became off-angle.
Brian decided to pull it back and start the fifth task from home. After the start, touching the robot was a five-point deduction, but the team decided it was worth it.
Ultimately, we scored higher than we’d even thought possible. We were an alternative school—all of our team members were all in the judicial system and sent to us, mainly under protest. Their parents rarely, if ever, showed up even for conferences. We were competing against magnet schools—in which only the best of the best attended. There were also traditional schools—who got to choose their clientele, and other schools, who had students and parents involved daily.
After the 12 teams had finished, we had placed third. Only the top two teams moved on to the regional finals. It didn’t matter to us. We had beaten eight other schools that had practice time after school. Two of my students competed against the schools they attended from before being sent to my Alternative School.
In “Spare Parts,” the misfits pulled together and built a robot for less than $800, competing against teams who’d spent upwards of $12,000. The team was from an at-risk high school and decided to compete in the College Division because they didn’t want to lose to other high schools. They’d agreed that losing to Colleges, such as MIT, wouldn’t feel as hopeless as not winning in the High School Division. I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say that I was bawling by the end.
For the very first time since I retired, I felt a stirring in my gut. I realized that a considerable part of my happiness while teaching came from coaching students to do the impossible. My head was whirring, and I begged Wm to watch the movie that night.
We did. And, again, I was crying at the end.
Will I ever return to teaching? I sincerely doubt it. I’m delighted with my life these days. But, will I eventually seek out another career that will fulfill me the same way as when I taught robotics? Possibly. I have no plans to start looking at the moment—however if the right opportunity presented itself, who knows?