How to teach us to collaborate

Several decades of using PCs and watching reality television have made us poor collaborators. I mean, look at me as a case in point: I sit in my office on most days typing away at my computer, perfectly content to be by myself and create articles and work on my next set of speeches and videos. I don’t need any staff, I can do it all from the comfort and privacy of my desktop.

Yes, I have a large group of people that I work with to produce my stories and arrange my meetings: editors, production people, and so forth. Sometimes the collaboration efforts are better than others. That is just human nature.

But this past weekend I got to see up close how to teach high school kids to work together, and it was an eye opener. Instead of the “Celebrity Apprentice” model where everyone has an ego and wears it on their sleeve, I found these kids enlightening and inspiring to see in action.

I am talking about the regional competitions for FIRST robotics. We actually get two times for FIRST here in St. Louis – in addition to last week, late in April we will also be hosting the international championships where the final teams come in from all over. The prize purse is huge: $15 million in college scholarships from more than 100 universities. Not to mention the bragging rights for the winners, which if you are a teenager, are substantial.

FIRST has been around for 20 years, and if you haven’t seen or participated, you might want to think about doing both. There are more than 2,000 teams from 60 countries. If you are interested in seeing where tomorrow’s top nerd talent will come from, this is a must-see event. You can spend an hour or the entire weekend watching the competition. And while the play-by-play commentary isn’t quite up to the par of say, professional baseball, the real action on the field and behind the scenes is important and exciting to entrepreneurs.

What I found interesting was seeing how groups of kids have to collaborate to work on fairly big projects in very limited time: they have to design, buy, build and market the necessary spare parts to build a robot in just a few weeks’ time, then ship it off to St. Louis and try to make it work under extreme duress during the competitions. And while there is plenty of adult input, most of the real work gets done by the students.

And this isn’t just about having engineers-in-training. The FIRST competitors draw on a variety of interests and skill sets – they have to design their logo, raise money, make sure they understand the design concepts, and delegate tasks to finish the project. It isn’t easy. When I was at the region competitions last week, I got to wander around the pit crews, and I saw one team that was in the process of taking apart their robot and putting it back together again to make it two inches shorter. For some reason, the team hadn’t gotten the right measurements during their design phase. Socket sets and crescent wrenches were in abundance as they feverishly worked, in the style of the best Indy 500 pit crews. It was a beautiful thing to watch. The only thing missing was the sound of the air wrenches the big guys use in the pits.

Later, when I sat in the stands, I spoke to a girl on one team who designed the team’s Web site and other communications. They were complaining that because of the numerous snow days in February, they had to come to school and still work on their robot while the other kids were off. Actually, she wasn’t complaining – she was proud of the fact that her team had worked so hard.

This year, the robots have to maneuver a series of inflatable pool toys and place them on a series of pegs on a wall. It doesn’t sound like as exciting as watching a group of guys kick a small ball from one side of a field to another, but believe me it has its own thrill of victory and agony of defeat just like any other sporting event. And if you want to see how leading edge collaboration is being taught to our next group of entrepreneurs and engineers, come down to St. Louis April 27-30. It is free and open to the public.

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