Summer With Robots and Friends

By Isabella Hennage - Build a Robot Instructor

As a child, I remember being completely and totally immersed in sci-fi novels and films. In fact, I still am! Reading about robots and seeing them in movies made me wonder if I would ever see them with my own eyes. Not once did I think I’d ever build one myself, much less teach others how to do it. Maybe it was the fact that, as a child, I had low confidence in my abilities. “If anyone is going to build a robot it would be the smart kids, and that is not me”. It is a sad truth that there are countless children in the world who feel the same way I did when I was their age. Their confidence in their intelligence and capabilities can be easily drowned by the negativity life often brings us. However, it is a lie that we tell ourselves. The truth is, we are all capable of amazing things. Sometimes all we need is a little help, and a friendly push in the right direction.

As an undergraduate student studying computer science at the University of Colorado at Boulder, I was looking for an opportunity to combine my computer science skills with my innate desire to help others. For a while, I searched and searched, not finding many tech jobs which incorporated the humanitarian aspect I was looking for. That is, until I found an offer for an instructor position at Build A Robot K12. I was astonished by the job description for many reasons; for one, it was a summer camp that teaches elementary school kids how to build robots. How amazing! I had an idea that there were robotics camps out there, however, I had no idea that there was a robotics camp that reaches such a young age! The inner child in me was jealous, why couldn’t there be something like this when I was young? I read on to find Build A Robot focuses on Social Emotional Learning (SEL). Aside from the physical aspect of building and programming robots, Build A Robot wants to ensure their students are in an environment which nurtures perseverance, empathy, positive thinking, collaboration, and lifelong learning. As soon as I read that, I knew I found what I was looking for. 

The first day of camp was coming up, and my nerves kicked in. Self-doubt came into my thoughts as a pessimistic monster, telling me things like, “you won’t be good enough” and “the kids won’t like you”. Similar to how I felt as a child, I did not believe I had what it took. I could not have been more wrong. Not only did I have two co-workers, Kayla Burkel and Wei Miao, who supported me and helped me in every way possible, I also had an entire class of amazing kids who made me feel like I was on top of the world. Just as I had felt that I was incapable of teaching kids how to build robots, many of the kids in the class felt that way about building robots. Nonetheless, they built robots and I helped teach them! I guess we proved ourselves wrong. In the first week of camp, I found myself becoming more confident in myself. Not just in the classroom, but outside of it as well. I was happy to see the same change occur in many of the campers. Each week there was a different element of social-emotional learning to be practiced, and each week I saw these young builders practice those elements right in front of me. It was absolutely inspiring and made me realize I needed the practice too. In fact, most adults could use the practice! 

Each morning I woke up for work excited for the growth that would happen that day, for the students and for myself. Once the last week of camp came, I was truly sad that the time would soon come where we would not be working and growing together. Of course, the last week of camp was anything but sad. The kids were given the opportunity to build their robot of choice. It could be a robot we had built together in the previous weeks, or a completely new and unique robot using their newfound robotics skills and limitless creativity. On the last day, every student was able to show their creations in a showcase of robots. Family members, friends, and students from other classes came into a room filled with robots the kids made, as well as a few advanced robots brought in by Ms. Burkel and Leo, a high school student who joined our team in the last week of camp. Imagine walking into a room as awesome as that! I could not have chosen a better group of kids to work with, nor could I have chosen better co-workers. I will always be grateful for the experience I gained working with such amazing people. Who knew how meaningful and impactful those four weeks would be!

The children of this generation are growing up alongside technology, something that has never progressed at such a quick rate. Robots, Artificial Intelligence, and supercomputers will be a large part of society, possibly in a matter of years. These are the children who will create these machines, man these machines, and live with these machines. These are the children who have already lived two years of their childhood in a pandemic, and will live through the worst of climate change. And yet, if there is any generation who can dive head first into these problems with perseverance, strength, and compassion, it would be the generation of the kids I got to spend my summer with. I can say with confidence these children have bright futures ahead of them. As a matter of fact, once they get older, I would be honored to once again work alongside them. 

– Isabella Hennage, Build a Robot Instructor –

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