A Thermonuclear Reactor in Federal Way?

I was recently at a community meeting with the new Superintendent of Federal Way.  I heard one of the parents say that there was a nuclear reactor in Federal Way next to Decatur High School.  WHAT?!?  She said that there was a man with a fusion reactor in his basement and high school kids come over to do science projects. 

After the meeting, I made a beeline for the nuclear lady and asked her for more details.  She gave me the website and I spent the rest of the evening looking into what they were doing as well as researching how fusion reactors work.  That night, I emailed Carl Greninger who runs the program and asked if I could take a tour.  I got a reply the next day inviting us to his next meeting on Friday night at 6:30pm.  Great!  This is exactly the kind of thing I want to be doing on a Friday night!

When Caleb and I got there, it was an unassuming split level house in a very ordinary looking Federal Way neighborhood.  A bunch of teenagers arrived the same time we did and told us just to go in the house.  When we opened the front door, Carl greeted us and escorted us into the garage of his house. 

It looked like an ordinary garage.  It had 2 cars in it and some wood working tools.  Carl told Caleb to go stand in front of the drill press and asked him if he could guess where the Reactor was.  Caleb shyly looked around the work bench and behind himself, then shrugged his shoulders.  Carl went over to the bookshelf and moved a few things, then it opened up into a secret lab lined with LED lights.  Caleb’s eyes widened and he whispered to himself, “Cool!” 


We walked in, and there in the middle of a small room sat the reactor.  Carl gave us a thorough lecture on radiation safety.  He had all kinds of detectors monitoring radiation.  He gave Caleb and I our own personal Russian radiation detectors that clicked when it detected radiation.  All the regulars wore little radiation badges that show lifetime radiation exposure.    He had some very sensitive equipment that detected background radiation that emitted from the ground and other naturally occurring sources.  He assured us that he and his team take radiation safety very seriously, and ensured us that there is no radiation exposure from the fusion reactor.  (Later when he turned on the reactor, he showed us all the instrumentation to assure us that there was no radiation leakage.)


He then showed us the power supply for the reactor.  It was a transformer that looked like it came right out of a Frankenstein movie.  He told us that the first stage takes up the voltage from 120V to 30,000V.  Then, there was a second stage that kicked it up above 100,000V.  All of this to transform Hydrogen gas into a plasma inside the reactor called a Fusor.  I think he said that the temperature of the plasma was 3million degrees Fahrenheit.  I may have misheard him and it may be 300million degrees.   There was a lot of information coming at us, but the take away was that it’s probably the hottest thing that I’ve ever stood next to (my wife excluded). 

In this next video, you see Michaela.  She is a freshman in high school.  I spoke to Michaela afterwards… or more accurately, she came and spoke to me.  She asked me what else I would like to know about the program.  She asked me if I had questions or if I would just like her to show us around.  She was probably one of the most articulate and professional high school students I’ve ever met.  I was later told that she just earned her red badge by recently passing all of the tests that Carl gave her based on the Department of Energy material listed on his website.  To see all of the subject matter, see here.  It is some serious course material.  Here she is operating the fusion reactor for the first time with Carl instructing her:

The first time, the plasma petered out.  Here is the second time, when you’ll see plasma on the screen right above Michaela’s head.  You’ll also hear the radiation detector clicking in the background as fusion is happening in the reactor.  (The detector is instrumented inside the nearly 1 ton lead/cadmium shielding.)

After spinning down the reactor, Carl lifted up the shielding using what appeared to be a hydraulic lift.  Michaela explained to Caleb how it worked and where the magic was happening.


The fusion reactor was pretty awesome.  But, I came to realize that this really wasn’t about a fusion reactor.  This was about the kids.  These high school students were amazing.  I got to meet many of them as we went into an adjacent room which was a meeting hall with a projector and lectern.  All of the students were dressed in their white lab coats.  They all had on different colored badges which signified that they have passed certain tests.  After some announcements, Carl dismissed the class to start lab.


One of the students showed me a contraption that he made on a milling machine.  He was using an aluminum brass coupling to make an actuating shield.  How did he know what materials to use?   How did he know how to use a milling machine? These are things that I learned when I was a junior in college.  He talked about the 6 hours it took to make the component and how he cut himself a few times trying to debur the sharp edges.  This was a component he was creating to conduct some experiments inside the reactor. 

Here is a snippet from their website of these student’s accomplishments:

We won the Gold (1st Place) at WSU Imagine Tomorrow in 2012.  We also won  the Gold (1st place) at the  Washington State Science Fair, and the Silver (2nd place) world wide at ISEF in 2013.   In 2014 we  won 2  silver  (2nd place) at the Central Sound Regional Science Fair at Bellevue College and  the Gold (1st place) twice in category at the Washington State Science & Engineering Fair at Bremerton.  In 2015, we won 14 – 1st place trophies at the Washington State Science and Engineering Fair, over $250,000 in scholarships at two different colleges and 3 of the 5 available trips to ISEF, where we won 4th place in the world against 72 countries. 

I was told that one of their high school freshman just won an $80k scholarship.  This student has 3 more years until they even attend college!

This experience opened my eyes to what could be done in education.  I asked Carl if there is anything I can do to help?  Where was he going next?   In his pamphlet, he describes what he is doing as a private science club.  It seemed like he wanted people to see that this type of club is a viable model for education.  He asked me to help him spread the word to educators.  He is not necessarily looking to expand his program or change it in any way, but it seems like he wanted others to see and replicate.  I did get the impression that one day he may want corporate sponsorship/partnerships. 

I am rarely blown away by what is being done in secondary education.  Carl blew my mind.  He has opened my eyes to what is possible beyond a week-long or month-long science project. 

I have enjoyed doing a lot of different STEM type activities with my children, but Carl is doing something at a level that I had not even imagined.  The level of time and financial investment he has put into proving out this model is incredible.  Carl has set a new bar for me for someone that is magnifying his God-given talents, gifts, and resources.   It is making me dare to dream bigger about what kind of projects/programs are possible, and what I might be able to do.

It has further impressed upon me that teaching our kids is our own responsibility.  I have no excuse not to provide my children with the kind of education I want them to have. 

Thank you for the tour, Carl!  But, more than that – thank you for the vision and what you’re doing.  It’s been a while since I’ve been truly inspired by someone.  It has caused a lot of discussion in our home about what to do next in science and engineering.

Hopefully, we’ll be regulars on Friday nights when Caleb (and Andrew my younger son) are old enough to join. 


A few links for those that are interested:







Robots: Try, try again


Here is what I love about robots:

  • They take incredible amounts of interdisciplinary engineering skills.
  • They almost never quite work like you expect.
  • They take  perseverance.  A LOT of perseverance.

In summary, they are not for the easily discouraged.  Or if you want to teach about how to overcome/handle failure, robots are perfect.  Our first robot competition last year, did not go so well.  It was a good lesson for Caleb in setting expectations for how difficult robots are.  We had a long talk about failure, and what we should do with those feelings.  It’s easy to quit, but you can also use those feelings to drive yourselves to try better next time.

Mid-summer, we formed another team and entered the World Robot Olympiad competition.  Caleb, Joey, and Jackson have been working for about 8 weeks on building a robot that can detect the color of lego blocks, push them to a certain location, and dispense ping pong balls.

Unless you’ve actually try to put together a working robot, it’s difficult to understand what it feels like to make a robot.  Mostly, the feeling is frustration.  Sometimes, it’s deep, desperate frustration.  Sometimes, it’s laugh-at-yourself frustration.   And, there are glimpses of hope and celebration, but those moments are few and far between.

I spent half a day today with the kids as they were putting together their video entry for the competition.  A few minutes after we had started, my wife asked me, “Are you guys done?”  

It occurred to me then, that she has no idea what it means to work with robots.  We were not done.  We have not even really begun at that point… My phone is chock full of video footage of failed attempts from throughout the day.  I put it all together in an 8 minute video, that hopefully captures the feelings and experience of working with robots.  I thought the video might be a little bit long, but Tenille started watching it, and ended up watching the entire thing.

Overall, a rewarding experience.  I got to reminisce about my old mechanical engineering days.  Caleb and I watched a bunch of old MIT 2.70 (now called 2.007) contest videos.  I saw many of my old professors (who looked quite young in some of the older videos).  Dr. Woodie Flowers who I had for my design class started the First Lego League, which Caleb will be participating in this Fall.

These kids may not grow up to be engineers, but I’m sure they’re going to run into frustrating challenges throughout their lives.  Hopefully, they’ll be able to grit their teeth and persevere through… just like with the robots.

Nice job, Caleb, Joey, and Jackson.



Here is our actual submission
Here’s what it took to get there…


Some old MIT 2.70/2.007 videos:




Definition of Marriage

00282_p_10aeq4j5ck0447In one of my sacred, bed-time conversation with my 7 year old son, Andrew, we’ve been talking about marriage quite a bit.  He had some problems that were troubling him.  He has two girl friends who both love him.  How is he supposed to know which one to marry?  I patiently listened to his dilemma and thought carefully about what advice I should dispense.  I’ve never had a problem of multiple girls doting over me, so I may not have been the most qualified to counsel him on this topic.  However, there were a few things that seemed relevant to discuss as a marriage practitioner.

When I was in my twenties and seriously considering the prospect of getting married, there was a question that lingered for me on the topic:

Do you “find” the one?  Or do you “choose” the one?  

Meaning – is it more important that you search the world high and low until you find that perfect spouse?    Or does it not matter so much who you marry, as long as you make a commitment to that person.  You “choose” them.  In my earlier years, I have to admit – I was in the camp of “finding” the perfect companion.  My son, Andrew, is in a similar camp.  Who is that “perfect” companion for me?  How do I find that right person?

Who can blame us for thinking this way?  Most of the stories that we watch and hear are all about finding that perfect person – pretty much every Disney movie – Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, Snow White, The Little Mermaid.  They are all stories about finding that perfect significant other.  Then you get married and live happily ever after.  The End.

I’m realizing that the problem with this narrative is that it completely obscures the true meaning of marriage.  What makes marriage so sacred and noble is that it’s about a life-long commitment.  [In our church, it’s an eternal commitment.]  The wedding day is not the goal, it’s the very beginning.  In some ways, there’s really nothing that’s special or meaningful about the actual wedding day, other than that you have just made a commitment.   What makes a marriage truly meaningful are the years of sacrifices, negotiations, and tribulations that you endure together.  It is the joy you find in the life-long effort of rearing children together.  It is the jobs that you could not take.  It is the houses and neighborhoods you could not live in.  It is all the things that you could not do or have because you love somebody, and their interests were more important than your wants.  It is all the things you are willing to give up because your spouse is more important.  It is the endless stream of apologies for neglecting their feelings and the resolution to do better.  It is putting everything else on hold while you sit in a hospital chair and hold their hand.  This is what a marriage is.  This is why people respect the word “marriage.”  When people live up to the word, it is sacred.  It is noble.  It is the most enviable of all relationships.  It is the kind of love and charity that most people hope to experience in their lives.  And it is all wrapped up neatly in one word – marriage.

Unfortunately, this true story of marriage is drowned out by the popular and commercial narrative – the Disney story.  Even as adults, there are shows that subtly elevate the “find” the right person and live happily ever after mentality.  Any show that glorifies the perfect wedding day, or finding “the one”.  Say Yes to the Dress, My Fair Wedding, Bridezilla, The Bachelor(ette), etc.  The problem with this mentality is that it propagates the message that marriage is about oneself and a spouse is the perfect product you are looking for.   It is about selfishness.  And in the end, selfishness is the opposite of what a marriage is about.  It is what destroys marriages.  Sometimes, this selfishness manifests itself in affairs, financial issues, the way spouses spend their time, abuse, etc.  In the end, when differences can not be reconciled, marriages end – and that dream of a life-long commitment dies with it.  Selfishness is the enemy of marriage.

The problem is that most of us all start selfish.  On our wedding day, most of us have never been asked to sacrifice our needs and wants – at least nothing like what will be required by a spouse and children.  It is through the process of marriage that we slowly shed our old selves and hopefully start to change – eventually becoming more charitable… more accommodating.  If we are lucky, then the conflict and required sacrifice come at a pace that we are prepared to handle.  Unfortunately for some marriages, the issues come faster than we are able to change and we are asked to give things up that we were not yet ready to sacrifice.  Fortunately, life almost always offer second chances and I have many friends that have found success after a reboot in a subsequent marriage.  I love to hear their stories and take careful mental notes when they tell me what they feel they are doing differently the second time around.

I remember a lesson that our good friend Natalie Glover gave us during a Family Home Evening when I was dating my wife Tenille.  She told a story of a woman who kept special silverware.  Every so often, she would take out the silverware and spent hours polishing them to make sure they were bright and shiny.  On the most special occasions, a few times a year, she would take out her special silverware and present them at the table for her guests.  The moral of the story is that the silverware was special because she treated them special.  Our marriages are like that.  They are special if we treat them special through the years.

So, my dear Andrew.  Here’s the advice.  Yes – it may matter who you choose, but you shouldn’t worry about that so much.  Mostly because you are too young.  But, secondly, you should be more concerned about how you will shape yourself in preparation for your marriage.  Are you willing to negotiate?  Do you try and find a way to make people happy around you?  Can you give up things for people you love?  Are you willing to put in a lifetime of effort to keep your marriage special?  If so, I promise your marriage will be successful.  You will grow to love your wife more and more as every year passes by.  Paradoxically, the more you give up and sacrifice for your family, the more meaningful they will become to you.  

Father’s Day Fishing

I got a cheap fly fishing rod from Amazon last year.  I’ve gone out a few times to parks and other grassy areas to do a little practicing, but never really gone fly fishing.  One of our friends from Church, Jeremy McMullin, mentioned that he goes out to the Green River to fish and catches a lot every time, so I asked if I could tag along with him.  We made an appointment with Jeremy and Rob Biornstad (who was also learning how to fly fish) and today was the day! 

A slight complication however… When I told my kids I was going fishing, they both became very excited and asked if they could go.  I was going to leave at 5:30am in the morning.  I thought this would be WAY too early for the kids… so I made them a deal.  If I didn’t have to wake them up and they were ready to go by 5:30, then they can come.  I thought there was a small chance that Caleb might be able to pull this off, but I doubt that Andrew would be able to get up that early.

When I woke up, they were both up and ready to roll.  I must have forgotten how exciting fishing sounded when I was a kid.  When I got to my Jeremy’s house, I explained what happened and he said,”Hmmm… ok…. we can work with that… “ 

I found out that the problem was that we had to cross the river in our waders, so we’d likely have to carry the boys across….  How hard could that be….   Well, I found it wasn’t impossible… but it wasn’t easy either.   And even though the river doesn’t seem fast, when you’re thigh high in the river, it’s like a big strong dog pulling on your legs constantly…. while you’re standing on very slippery rocks…. while holding your child on your back and fishing gear in both hands….  It was a little nerve-wracking but a good fun adventure.

I was told by another wise friend, Dean Bennion, that when you go hunting and you go with your kids – you should realize that you’re not really going for yourself.  You can’t really do exactly what you want AND make sure the kids are having a good time.  You have to choose one.   And if you’re a father that wants your kids to keep coming with you, you’ll choose to make sure your kids are having fun. 

I was able to get some fishing in.  I didn’t catch anything, but it was fun to cast in the river.  Between casting, I had to tend to my kids who seemed like they were getting their line caught on a rock every few casts.  Then, I would have to wade into the river and pull the hook out of whatever it was caught in. 

Once, the hook was caught in something in the middle of the river.  I waded out there and the current was strong.  It came up high on my thigh and was almost pushing me over.  I could see the hook deep in the river caught between some rocks.  As I was leaning in to unhook it, the river got the best of me, and I slipped into the river.  It took a moment for me to regain my footing.  But now, water was down my wader and I had become a walking aquarium.  I eventually got the hook free.  But, I realized that my phone was drenched.  I have the Samsung Galaxy 5 which boasted water resistance… but, is it river flood resistant?  When I got out of the river, I could see it was not happy.  Parts of the phone were not responding.  I powered off, disassembled and put it all on a log to dry out.  When I got home, my wife put it in a bowl of rice.  (Which is the recommended treatment for any electronic device after it’s been water logged.)  I think it’s working now, but there’s some warning about the temperature sensor…

As for fishing, I did learn a few things from Jeremy.    Hopefully, I’ll learn a few things each time I go… just in time to be a grandpa… and take my kid’s kids.

1.  Fly needs to be dry and fluffy looking.  For a while, I was using a soggy fly that didn’t really look like anything.  Jeremy sprayed on some fly floatant and it did the trick.  When I floated my dressed fly down the river, I immediately started getting nibbles and a small trout jumped out of the water pulling on my line.  Then it got away.

2.  Bring some polarized sunglasses.  You can see into the water better.

20150620_094802The highlight of the trip was when Caleb caught a fish.  It was tiny (4 inches, maybe?… although I’m probably exaggerating…)  But, it was enough to make the fishing trip worthwhile for the kids.  On the way  home, we stopped by the Sun Break Café in Auburn and had a big country fried steak.  After breakfast, Caleb and Andrew were both out cold, sleeping in the back seat. 

Fishing without the kids on the River would have been a good Father’s Day… but what’s the point of Father’s Day without being a Dad.

30 Minute Standoff at Walmart

Lego ChimaI took the kids today to Walmart so that I could get a fishing license for this weekend.  As we were walking in, my youngest son asks me if he could get a toy.  I give him my usual answer – “You can do whatever you would like with your money.”  My hope is that his greed for money will deter him from making foolish purchases.  This worked very well for my older son, Caleb.  Andrew has not yet developed any propensity for money.  He only likes what you can trade in money for.

In the Federal Way Walmart, the fishing license station is strategically located right next to the Lego aisles.  Legos are Andrew’s weakness.  His eyes went wide as he started looking up and down the aisles.  

Getting a fishing license seemed to take forever as the clerk asked me question after question about licensing options.  Meanwhile, I could see Andrew drooling as he paced up and down the Lego aisles.  He finally comes up to me and tells me that he found what wanted.  It was a $60 Lego set of what looked like Ninjas and a castle that shot out cannonballs.  I finish up my fishing license transaction and went over to see the Lego set.  He proudly shows it to me and starts exclaiming, “I have the money!  I have $600 in the bank!”  A line had formed at the wildlife licensing station, and Andrew and his poor father were the only entertainment available to those waiting in line.

I started to whisper, “How do you earn money, Andrew?”

“I do chores!”  He exclaimed.  “I have the money!”

“How much do you get paid for a chore?”

“$1!”  Andrew replied.  Caleb who is nearby corrected him, “1 School Dollar.”

I am not completely privy to my wife’s monetary/economic system she has developed around chores, so I continue to inquire… “How many school dollars equal 1 real dollar?”

“10!”  Andrew replied….

‘Great!’ I thought, ‘This should be an easy argument… ‘   “So, how many chores do you need to do buy this Lego set?”

It took some calculation, but he finally got the number.  “600!” He exclaimed proudly.

“Do you think this Lego set is worth doing 600 chores?”  I ask.

“I’ve got the money!  And I can get money in other ways like Birthdays and New Year’s!”

This was not going in the direction I was hoping for…  People in line are trying not to look, but they are smirking… ‘What are you going to do now, Dad?’

I’m torn because I want him to know that he can do what he wants with his money, but I also want to help him develop restraint… At the end of the day, whatever he decides to do with his money is going to be his choice.  There’s a part of me that thinks that I should just let him buy it.  Then, I should bring him every day to Walmart and let him spend all of his money or until he gets tired of buying Legos.  Kinda like making him smoke an entire pack of cigarettes.    As I’m thinking this through, he pulls on the Lego box and finds that it’s chained to the shelf.  “Whew!”  I think.

“Dad, the box is stuck to the shelf!”

“Well, I think you have to ask the clerk to unlock it for you.  You probably need to get to the end of the line.”

A man near the front of the line overhears our conversation and offers to let us go ahead of him to get this taken care of.

“No thanks.  I think I’d prefer we wait at the end of the line so that he has a chance to think about how he’s going to spend his money.”  I smile politely and decline.  ‘You’re not helping me, buddy.’

As Andrew continues pulling on the box to try and see if he can self-unlock, I try another approach.  “Do you know what the purpose of Walmart is?”

“To sell thing,” he replies.

“That’s right.  It wants you to look at all this fun stuff, so that you will give them your money.”  Then I started describing the packaging, and why the packaging looks much more fun than the toy is likely to be.

“Well, Walmart wants me to have fun, too!”  He protests.

“They don’t care if you have fun or not.  They care that they get your money.  If you went home and threw away your $60 Lego set, they would not be sad.  They want your money.  They want you to come here every day, until you run out of money.” 

He thought about this for a moment.  Then, he let go of the $60 Lego set, and chose a $14 Lego set.  ‘Whew… the stakes just got a lot smaller… ‘  “Andrew, It doesn’t matter to me which one you get.  I’m not going to stop you.  You can get the big if you want.  You can come here every day and buy a Lego set if you want.”

“No, I’ll take this smaller one.  It’s not as expensive.”

Still trying to talk him out of it, I continued, “Well, something that Caleb and I always did was we practiced waiting one week before buying anything.  If there is something you see that you want, I would ask Caleb to try waiting one week and see if he still wanted it.  Usually he didn’t, and he was glad he kept his money.”  I reminded him of his last toy that he bought.  It was a Hot Wheels set that his grandma bought for him a few weeks ago.  It is now in multiple pieces littered around the house.  It hasn’t been played with after day 2. 

He looked at the Lego set in his hand (the smaller lego sets were unfortunately not chained down), then put it back on the shelf.  Success! 

Then, he picked up an even smaller Lego set.  It was $9.  “I want this one.”

We’ve been talking for about 25 minutes at this point.  “Ok, “ I relented.  “Let’s go pay for it.”  I have until here to the check out counter to dissuade him. 

During that 50 meter walk to the checkout counter, I gave it my last attempt.  “Are you sure you don’t want to wait 1 week?” 

“Yes.  I want it now.” 

We got to the checkout counter.   “Do you know why all of these candies, sodas, and magazines are right here next to the checkout counter?”

“Because they’re yummy!”  Andrew replied.

“That’s exactly right.  It’s for people that can’t control themselves.  Right before they’re about to checkout, they can’t control themselves and they start picking up all this yummy food.  It’s called impulse buying.  People who can’t control themselves eventually become poor because they buy everything that they see and want.  Do you want to be rich or poor?”


“Then, you might consider waiting one week and see if you really want that toy.”

“But, you won’t have time to bring me to Walmart.  We never come to Walmart!”  An objection!  Must overcome objection!

“I promise I will come to Walmart if you are still thinking about this toy next week.  OR, I am happy to order it on Amazon.  We’ve done that together before.”

He looked at his Lego for what seemed like 30 seconds.   The gears in his mind churning.  “Ok,  I’ll come back next week.”  [YES!!!!]

I keep my poker face on,  “You’re more than welcome to buy this toy right now… as well as anything else you want.  It’s your money… I just don’t want you to be poor…  but, it’s your choice… “

He was already walking back to the Lego aisle.  “No, I’ll get it next week.”

There’s hope for him yet.   And hope for me.  I know I took the time to have important discussions with Caleb.  Not so much with Andrew.  Part of it is his personality.  Part of it is me.  In my mind, I probably think I’ve already had these conversations… but if I stop to think about it, I really haven’t with Andrew.  I normally go with the classic “Because Daddy said so” or more likely I don’t even offer any explanation for why he can or can’t do something.  This was a rare moment where I felt like I actually took the time to convince him of a good life principle.  I know I need to do more.  Jotted down the story as a reminder to myself.

2nd most disappointing day in Caleb’s life

In January, we got a Lego Mindstorm, so that I could start teaching my kids about robotics.  Robotics is a great engineering project because it’s so multi-disciplinary.  You need to learn about software programming, mechanics, hardware/electrical engineering, sensors and sensor error, tolerances, etc.  And at the end of all that hard work, you usually end up with something that kind of does what you want it to do most of the time….. or some of the time as the case may be.

We found that there were 3 big robot competitions throughout the year  (In reverse order of popularity):

1. robofest.net [March Competition]

2. World Robot Olympiad [July/August Competition]

3. First Lego League [December competition]

Since we were in January, I thought we would enter in the RoboFest competition which was held in Monroe.  If you win in Monroe, then you move on to the Championships in Michigan.

RoboFest 2015-03-29 002

Caleb invited his 4 close friends and we started meeting on Tuesday nights to start assembling the robot.  The goal of the competition was to create a “Bowling Robot.”  You load up a tennis ball onto your robot at home base, then it is supposed to roll out to the bowling area, then somehow release the ball down a lane to knock over water bottles at the other end.

After some discussion, we decided to use a gravity feed down a rail so that we can increase precision.  We used a guiding wall and the edge of playing area to set our robot up perfectly every time. 

After meeting about 7 times on Tuesday nights, we had a robot that was working.  On the Friday before the competition, the boys had a final meeting to make some final tweaks.  By the time I got home from work, they reported that the Robot was working very well.  They were talking about winning the competition and going to Michigan. 

RoboFest – Practice

The day of the competition finally came.  We woke up early and made the drive to Monroe, WA.  All the parents came to watch their kids in the competition.  I was reminded that at a certain time, coaches were no longer allowed to help the teams.  The kids needed to do the competition themselves.  Our good friend, Karlin Kersavage, and his son, Krew, came out to cheer us on.  I sat with them as we watched the kids prepare for the competition.

They started testing their robot on the competition table.  Immediately, the first thing we noticed was that the wheels were starting to spin out on the new table on the turns.  Our robot does all the turns by odometry (by turning the wheels a certain amount), rather than by sensor.  So, if the wheels start slipping, the robot will not turn enough.  We had thought this may be a problem, so we had a few ideas to try and deal with this problem.  First, the kids tried washing the wheels.  This had worked previously on our practice table when we thought the wheels were getting a bit too dusty.  On the competition table, when we washed the wheels, the wheels got even more slippery.  Our idea #2, was to wash the wheels in some type of sugar soda.  Caleb got some root beer and gave that a try.  No luck.  The wheels were still spinning. 

What we found was that the front sliding pads were not sliding as well on the new table surface.  The friction co-efficient was different, so it was making the wheels spin out.  We tried a few different options on the front pads like putting scotch tape on them to make them more slippery, but no luck.  Eventually, we tried to increase the number of wheel turns to make up for the slippage, but this was going to cause a large amount of variance in how much the robot would turn, but at this point, we were running out of time and options. 

Robofest Practice 1
Robofest Practice 2

As the kids were playing with the number of wheel turns, the robot fell off the edge of the table and broke.  Not just a little break.  It broke into many, many, many pieces.  There was only a few minutes left before the robots had to be impounded before the competition.  The parents of our kids watched on in horror.  The kids were frantically trying to piece the robot back together.  But, the robot was too far broken to be fixed up in a few minutes.  The time ran out.  The organizer, (bless her heart), was kind enough to give our kids a little more time to re-assemble their robot.  She saw how frustrated our kids were and had mercy on them.  Some of the kids were on the verge of tears as they tried desperately to piece their robot back together. 

I felt for the kids and their desperation.  I have never seen Caleb so focused.  It was an expression between panic and persistence.  I imagine brain surgeons have this look as they’re about to lose a patient and they quickly try to fix what was wrong with a prayer in their heart.  It is a look we see in movies as a super-hero is desperately trying to save the day.  This look was on several of the kids faces as they all did what they could to fix the robot.  For me, at that moment, it didn’t really matter to me what the outcome of this competition was going to be.  I got a glimpse of what my son was capable of when the world was burning down around him.  He would desperately try to put out the fire.   

Sad to say, the efforts were not enough.  They were able to put the robot back together, but not in its original configuration.  When they came back to the bleachers, I told them that we may not get a chance to bowl, but we could still get some points by measuring a black square.  (This is one of the first things that the robot needs to do).  I told them that were other robots that were also having problems.  If we can get a few points by accurately measuring the black square, then we would still have a chance.

When it was their turn, they carefully put the robot on the starting position.  When they pressed the Go button, the robot over-turned and it did not make it into the bowling area.  They tried to restart it.  But as they were handling it, the rails fell off the robot.  Caleb tried to put it back on, but the pieces started falling off and dragging behind the robot.  I yelled out that they should unplug the component that fell off (so that it wasn’t dragging behind the robot and getting in the way).  Caleb quickly reached for the robot and ended up unplugging all the sensors.  Now the robot would not be able to measure the black square any more.  That is how the first round ended – In complete disaster.  The clip is a little painful to watch…

RoboFest Round 1

Needless to say, the kids were all disappointed.   However, we found out that there was going to be a round 2.  We were going to get another 30 minutes to re-calibrate our robot and try again.  Hope returned to the kids faces.  When the 30 minute recalibration phase started, the kids started putting together the robot again so that it was more sturdy.  One of the kids, Joey, started reprogramming to get the turning right.  When the 30 minutes was up, the robot was completely over-hauled.  It was a little stronger.  However, the programming was not complete.  Joey continued to work on it after the robot was impounded.  He told the team that he needed to reflash the robot, so nobody should push the go button on the robot, when they start.

It was their turn again for Round 2.  In this round, Joey was ready to reflash and pushed the code from the computer to the robot.  While he was doing this, the “Go” button on the robot was pressed which wasn’t supposed to happen.  The robot started lurching forward.  Then the robot stopped in the middle of the playing field and got reprogrammed and started over again.  The robot ended up running off the edge of the table.  The rails broke off of the robot.  After some minor adjustments, they tried again, but the rails would not stay on.  They were able to accurately measure the black square this time.  However, they were not able to get the robot into the bowling area.

Robofest Round 2

They ended up getting 3rd place out of 4 in the 2nd Round, but got last overall.  There were some tears.  There were some hurt feelings.  There was definitely disappointment. 

As we were sitting there on the bleachers, I let them know that this is not where the story needs to end.  That all great people have bags full of stories like this.  Stories of failure.  And although I’m not necessarily a great person, stories of failure happen to be my specialty. 

I told them about my first robotics competition.  It was at MIT.  It was a class called 2.007.  (All classes at MIT are numbers… I’m sure the class has a name, too, but nobody calls it by the name.. )  This competition is probably one of the biggest events at the school.  I remember that the year I was competing, the competition filled the biggest lecture hall on campus.  It was literally standing room only and the people were lined up and packed in all along the aisles of the lecture hall.  Once you were in, there was no leaving.  There were drums and horns blaring.  The atmosphere was like a big football game at a “normal” college.  


2.007 Mad Cow Board

The robot game was to sweep up a bunch of ping pong balls and then climbing up a ramp to dump them into a bin from the top.   However, these bins had a sliding plexi-glass door on the side that slid upward.  If you were somehow able to slide up the plexi-glass door, you could just shove all the ping pong balls into the bin rather than taking it up the ramp and dumping them in at the top. 

2.007 Mad Cow2.007 Mad Cow 2

Out of about 30-40 competitors, I was the only person working on a mechanism to lift up the plexi-glass door.  It was all spring loaded and worked kind of like a mouse trap.  An arm fell down on to the top of the glass door.  When the arm hooked on to the hole in the plexiglass door, it would automatically trigger a mousetrap type mechanism that would spring the door upward and open.  It worked about 75% of the time.  But, when it did – it was awesome.  Then, I had a car in the shape of a cow.  This was the time that there was the mad cow epidemic in England.  My cow car had spiral eyes and holstein spots.  It even had a cow-pie that it was supposed to release in front of the other competitor as a “land mine” of sorts.

2.007 Mad Cow

On the day of the competition, my good friend Damon Bramble volunteered to be my assistant.  He was always a bit of a ham.  When it was our turn, he took my cow car and strode up to what seemed like a thousand people that came to watch the competition.  He held it up like Simba and gave a big “MOOOOOOOOOO!”.  The audience roared back in return “MOOOOOOOOOO!” 

I carefully lined up my door lifter mechanism, then put my cow car on top.  When the judge gave the signal to go, the door lifter arm fell onto the sliding door.  There was a loud snap, and it pulled the bin door up perfectly!  There was an admiring “ooooooooo” from the audience and then applause.  But, just as suddenly as the applause started, it stopped with an “awwwwwww” of disappointment.  In my excitement, I had jumped my cow car off of the starting platform and it flipped upside down.  For the remainder of the competition, there was nothing more I could do.  My cow car laid prostrate.  I released my cow pie…. and that was the end.  I had spent 3 months on that projects.  More than 70% of my time that semester went to building out this robot at the expense of all my other classes.  And this is how it ended – in 3 seconds of udder disappointment.  I spent the a week after that in a mild depression.  I didn’t go to classes.  I just laid in bed.  All I could think about was what I could have done differently.  How I could have designed that cow not to have flipped.  How I could have gently drove off the starting platform.  There was almost no limit to my list of ideas of what I could have done differently.  Then finally, on the next weekend, I decided I needed to stop doing this to myself.  I told myself I will never regret again.  I did my best, and that’s all I could do.  Next time, I know what I need to do differently, but at this point, there is no good that will come out of second guessing what I did or did not do for the last competition.  That was probably one of the best lessons I’ve learned in my life and I feel lucky I learned it early. 

The kids laughed at my story.  It was a modest salve to their hurt egos, but hopefully they could see the bigger picture.  This particular competition was not going to define who they were.  It is one story.  Hopefully, it is a story that will be fun for them to tell when they have successes.  And I know each of them will have plenty of successes.  I’m still waiting for my success, but when that happens, I’m going to really enjoy telling all my failure stories…

On the way home, I let Caleb know how proud I was of him.  He was reflective of the day on that long ride back home.  He told me that this was the 2nd most disappointing day of his life.  I asked him what the most disappointing day was… He said it was the balloon launch.  Nice…

Despite the disappointment, he wanted to do another Lego competition.  In my book, that’s a success.   Some people expect to try something for the first time and be awesome at it…. I don’t think there’s really anything worth doing where that happens.  The best things require a lot of practice and when you first try it, you’ll be very, very bad.  It’s our job as parents to try and get our kids over that hump so that they can eventually be good at many different things…

This was the first time I coached a robotics team.  Admittedly, I can do much better. 

Honestly, it was a little bit difficult running an elementary school robot team for the first time.  Keep in my mind that my primary goal was to get kids engaged in Robotics, not win a competition.  Here were my lessons learned:

1.  Not all kids had the same level of skills and interest in making a robot.  Some of the kids naturally started investigating and experimenting on their own.  Others were there to hang out with friends, but didn’t have an instinctive desire to start playing with the components.  Because we only had about 7 sessions, I couldn’t methodically teach lessons on various principles of engineering.  We had to start designing and building from Day 1.  This was difficult for kids that didn’t naturally want to engage in the problem solving discussions. 

2.  The team was made up of 5 kids and that was at least 2 too many kids.  I only had one robot, and 2 laptops.  For kids to learn and play with robots, everyone needs to be getting their hands dirty.  Ideally, future teams would be 2-3 kids so that they can be hands-on.  Even if all the kids wanted to be engaged in building robots,  I didn’t have enough stuff for all the kids to be doing.  This exacerbated the problem of the kids that were less interested, because then they would passively be pushed aside.  I’d rather run multiple smaller teams with more equipment than have half the team sit and be disengaged.  Everyone should actively solving a problem. 

3. Robots are hard.  Once a week for 7 weeks was not enough.  I think we needed multiple nights per week for a couple hours to make sure to teach fundamentals of mechanics and programming.  Then we can start building out features and improve on them.  Doing mini-problems and lessons that were skill-level appropriate would have allowed everyone to be more engaged. 

4. Time was not used efficiently during sessions.  There was no sense of urgency among the kids.  As a coach, I would probably set up a more competitive/timed environment to keep the kids more focused.  There were goals for each session, but the focus was not there.  During the competition, there was definitely focus.  I think that was due to the competitive nature of the competition and the strictly timed schedule.    During practice sessions, there was no consequence to socializing instead of getting work done… (Well.. the consequence was discovered at the competition…)  Practice sessions could have been engineered to get more out of the kids every time. 

Good lessons learned.  Next time – we’ll all do better.

Don, Tenille, Caleb, and Andrew