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My kids have been involved in robotics contests the past 4 years.  They enjoy them, and I love the varied skills learned in a single contest.  First, there are the technical skills: a problem is presented, and a whole team has to work to solve it.  Physics, mechanics, engineering ingenuity, and computer programming are all key elements.  Second, there are team building skills: team members must learn to communicate and work together.

Besides being a parent, I’m a 4-H leader in Evansville, Indiana.  4-H has a major emphasis towards science, engineering, and technology and has a national goal of inspiring 1 million new scientists for our new century.  I began the process to have a robotics project in our county. 

A robotics project wasn’t enough, however.  We needed a club that focused on technology.  I didn’t want a robotics club; when Edison invented the light bulb, were there light bulb clubs? It’s more than robotics.  Our information revolution is the biggest transformer of world culture since the Industrial Revolution, and I wanted our kids to be ready to be the best riders in the world Technological Rodeo.

So we began a Technology Club.  (Actually, the kids in the club voted they didn’t like that name and renamed it Tech Club.)  At each monthly meeting, we have a different workshop topic in engineering, electrical science, aerospace, computers, and physics.  Each member tackles a 4-H project in one of those areas and gives a demonstration each year in one of those areas.

Our county sends several teen 4-H members every summer to participate in science and engineering workshops.  I hope, with our club, we raise the interest in those workshops and the knowledge base of those who participate.

We also organize our county’s robotics contest. The last 2 years, the contest has mirrored other contests in which my kids participate, with teams competing against one another.  Our contest is an impromptu design contest;  kids don’t know until they arrive what the challenge is and have limited time in which to complete it.

This year’s contest adds an element almost out of a reality show.  In addition to the team contest, we will have judges observing the competitors individually.  They will evaluate the competitors both in problem solving and team building skills.  And they will award an individual champion in each of 3 age divisions. I have not seen another robotics contest try this twist and am curious to see how the experiment works.

Problem Solving:

  1. Understands challenges presented and develops strategies to overcome them.
  2. Develops a good robotics design for the challenge.
  3. Assists in robotic programming to meet the challenge.
  4. Demonstrates strong troubleshooting skills.
  5. Is able to make needed adjustments to robotic design or problem solving.

 Team Building: 

  1. Participates on the team.
  2. Communicates constructively with other team members, actively listening to them.
  3. Encourages participation of all team members; pulls strengths from individuals to build a better team.
  4. Takes good care of robot and its parts.
  5. Treats everyone in the robotics contest in a respectful and supportive manner.

My goal is to teach the 4-H members to not only strive to win but to strive to win well.  We’ll know later tonight whether my experiment to mix up the contest is a success or an epic fail.

Either way, our leaders and our club will learn by doing.

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“Kids have to have the skills for this century,” I told a mother about social media.

“Yes, I know. That’s why my kids study robotics,” was her answer.

Robotics has as much to do with social media as an electric weedeater does with cars. Operating one has nothing whatsoever to do with the other.

Sometimes parents tell me that letting their kids use social media is a privilege.  I’ll add to that: it’s a parent’s responsibility to ensure their teens know how to use social media. 

Not just to post

  • “I’m booooorreeed. Text me at xxxxx.” on FB. 
  • photos of girls gone wild on spring break on Myspace
  • videos of boys busting out all over on Youtube
  • status lines like “I hate my job cause my boss is stupid and our customers are a royal pain.”
  • joining groups celebrating flatulence with four letter words.

Parents must encourage their kids to add content and value to the social media conversation.  Teach by example is the best way.

This is a survival skill. Watch Socialnomics on Youtube.  Already more people search Facebook for info than Google.  Employers evaluate social media in their hiring decisions. Scholarship committees background check before giving money.

As parents, we pay for SAT/ACT prep classes.  We seek tutors, drive kids to sports, and work to help them get ready for college. Shouldn’t we also help them develop social media skills to distinguish themselves from the pack?

Legally, teens can begin to use most media outlets at age 13. Don’t start them early; not everything on social media is G rated. Do start them as a younger teen so you can observe their use of social media and they can learn to handle tough situations. This is like driving lessons – you want to coach your kids through their first experience driving on ice to help them learn to handle the slick spots.

Basic ways teens can use social media well and benchmarks they need:

  • Post information on Facebook. Know how to discern friends and how to post appropriately.
  • Discern who to add as friends and who to refuse. Understand privacy settings and how to adjust them.
  • Upload photos and videos directly to Facebook and have the wisdom to know the difference between a photo to post and 1 to delete.
  • Upload a video to Youtube by age 16.
  • Create and maintain a written blog by age 17. I use WordPress. Let your kids write their blog on their passion. When they write about what excites them, it will develop their knowledge base, their interest, and their writing skills.
  • Search Twitter by age 17 and set up a  Twitter account by age 18. (Under 18 Twitter account could be under a pseudonym with a non-face photo for security purposes.)
  • Use Twitter well by age 18 – to engage in conversations and real time chats. College textbooks are often dated as soon as they are printed. Twitter is the fastest way to keep up with tech changes and opportunities in every field and to meet the industry thought leaders.
  • Create a LinkedIn profile before leaving for college and begin to collect references and network contacts.
  • Know how to audit their social media footprint and make sure they are branding themselves well.

Bad things can happen when teens drive cars. So we teach them to drive well & pray they stay safe.

Ditto for social media.

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My tweeting has changed my teaching style.  I have taught continuing education computer classes for a community college for 14 years – Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Access classes. Every time I teach, I leave classes happy because I have found some way to empower my students to better use computers to make their lives easier.

When I started teaching companies to use social media, a key point was telling them to listen.  If they listen and engage on those levels, good things will happen.

That has migrated into my classroom.  First, I started broadening each class to begin with a question/answer session.  That’s riskier than following a book.  As I answer questions, I demonstrate live, in front of the room.  Sometimes the demonstrations don’t go as planned.  Those become better teachable moments than if I merely followed a cookbook textbook approach to lesson plans.

Something funny happened on the way to the spreadsheet in a recent Excel class.  As I reviewed options on the ribbon, I pointed out the translate button.

Suddenly, the entire room began to buzz.  The employees in this class began to talk to one another. 

I listened.

They are working with a plant in Mexico, and every student in the room had a daily need to find better ways to communicate with non-English speakers.

Pause the spreadsheet formula. 

For the next 20-30 minutes, I showed how to do a simple translation in Word and how to set up translation tips.  That morphed into googling for translator helps; none of the students ever thought of googling for a translator.  Then we discussed Google chat and its translate feature.

We eventually got back to the spreadsheet.  Class ran a little late as I raced to meet all the goals set for the day’s class.  Had I bulldozed over their conversation, we would have finished on time.

However, my listening gave the class an unexpected lesson in something they needed right here, right now, to decrease their stress and better focus on their jobs.  They saw new ways to leverage technology to work FOR them, not against them.

I saw something new too. In 14 years of teaching, I have grown too comfortable teaching the same old same old.  Listening and keeping up with tech advances makes every class a game changer.

Tweeting is make me practice what I teach.

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