In August 2022, I met Shevon, a Son of a Saint mentee. Son of a Saint (SOAS) is a non-profit organization that mentors fatherless boys in New Orleans. Shevon and I built a 4-inch catapult that launched a gumball six feet. When Shevon first launched his catapult, his eyes lit up. He could not believe it. Within minutes, he modified the catapult to propel the ball even further. Shevon and I then mounted his catapult onto a robot, enabling the contraption to autonomously move and shoot like a basketball player. In October 2022, I led an in-school robotics program at a Title I school in New Orleans East. As I stood in front of a class of 5th graders, someone to my left shouted, “I remember you! I remember you!... You helped me build the catapult.” It was Shevon. I smiled. He remembered more than the catapult, though. He explained what he learned about robots to his peers and, impressively, coded his group’s robot to pick up a pencil. His classmates were amazed, many begging to stay behind after class to upgrade their robots. Working with Shevon, I began to reflect on why I started RoboRecovery. I realized that I did not start it for robots. I started it so that students like Shevon can realize themselves how capable they are—rather than me simply telling them so. I started it because just a plastic robot and mentorship can change a child’s life—just as it did for me years ago.
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Mikey is one of the first students we worked with. Several weeks into the program, Mikey admitted that while he really enjoyed robots, he also saw after-school robotics as a way to destress, to escape his constant family issues even for just a few hours a week. This really struck a chord with William, and led him to change the teaching philosophy of RoboRecovery’s after-school programs. Instead of running students through a rigid lesson plan as a class would, RoboRecovery ow uses an individualized approach at student learning, pacing each student differently to maximize how much students enjoy and learn about robotics.
We start our first program with this organization that mentors fatherless boys, and most of these boys come from families living near the poverty line. One of these students is Dylan, and as I chat with him, I cannot even begin to imagine the obstacles Dylan faces just to be where he is. But regardless, Dylan is a pain to work with. Dylan shows up to make a scene, riling them up and turning robotics club into an awful symphony between younger boys with high-pitched squeals and older boys whose voices are just beginning to crack. My volunteers and I, as well as our ears, cannot handle this mess. Eventually I got the courage to confront Dylan after class. I’m trying to be as nice as possible to a 5th grader. And so, I say “Dylan, be honest with me, do you really want to be here?” There is this long pause, and I think that made Dylan uncomfortable enough to say “Sometimes I just don’t get it.” I try to clarify, “what don’t you get?” “I dunno, the whole coding thing.” And at that point, I had a hypothesis. Dylan had fallen behind, and instead of asking for help, he hid it so perfectly by being the troublemaker. And I resolve to start working more closely with Dylan. I started quizzing him, because he couldn’t hide what he did not understand if he had to explain. And the more we did this, I saw his eyes open wide, and he shouts “OOOOHH, I get it.” And rather than asking him questions, he starts asking me questions like “how can my robot find an object.” He is getting it, and he’s excited to come to robotics, and I am equally as excited to be learning. It’s now a year and a half later. I am talking to Dylan’s mentor and learn that he is lead programmer on their robotics team, which is an incredible turnaround. I ask Dylan “you’ve really changed a lot, I guess you got a lot out of robotics.” And rather than looking down while he talks to me, as he did before, Dylan looks at me confidently and says “Oh, for sure” I was pleasantly shocked. I want to probe further and say, “that’s awesome, do you want to do something with robotics in your career?” and he says “kinda, I want to major in chemical engineering in college.” As I am driving home that day, and there’s a lot of traffic, which gives me time to think. “Chemical engineering”? Heck, when I was Dylan's age, I did not know that those two words went together. How did Dylan know chemical engineering? And then I realized I had gone full circle. Back when I couldn’t find a robotics club to volunteer with, I set out to create that opportunity in a community without it. And now seeing that Dylan sees himself as a future engineer because of robotics made me feel so awesome inside.
STORIES FROM WILLIAM
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