Engineering Education Podcast

« Previous · Next »

Robot Philanthropy

Latest Episode

Episode cover art

Robot Philanthropy

Season 1 · Episode 6

Previous Episodes

Episode cover art

Going to Conferences

Season 1 · Episode 5

You Might Also Like...


Engineer Jeff Munn talks about teaching kids robotics in an orphanage in India. Jeff works for engineering hardware-software company National Instruments, based in Austin, Texas. With his company's support, he volunteers for a program from the nonprofit organizations Science in a Suitcase and the Miracle Foundation. The program aims to educate often marginalized children around the world, and they are raising funds for another trip to India to help another orphanage. He talks about teaching techniques, educational equipment, how he became an engineer despite starting as a musician, and what engineering means to him.

Our opening music comes from "School Zone (radio edit)" by The Honorable Sleaze, and our closing music is from "Learn To Live With What You're Not" by Steve Combs. Both are used under a Creative Commons Attribution License: creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Subscribe and leave episode reviews wherever you get your podcasts. Support Pios Labs with regular donations on Patreon, by purchasing digital teaching materials at the Pios Labs curriculum store, or by buying a copy of the reference book Engineer's Guide to Improv and Art Games by Pius Wong. You'll also be supporting educational tools and projects like Chordinates! or The Calculator Gator. Thanks to our donors and listeners for making the show possible. The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is a production of Pios Labs.


The following is a transcript of an episode of The K12 Engineering Education Podcast. More transcripts for other episodes are linked from the podcast main page, k12engineering.net. Extra information about the episode, including links to relevant resources, are listed in the show notes, which can be found on iTunes, SoundCloud, or your podcast player.

Transcript of:

The K12 Engineering Education Podcast


Robot Philanthropy

Release Date:




[Pius Wong] This is The K12 Engineering Education Podcast for July 25, 2016.

[0:13 music]

[Pius]  If you’re an educator, engineer, entrepreneur, or parent who’s interested in getting kids into engineering at younger ages, then this is for you.  I’m Pius Wong.  I’m speaking with Jeff Munn, who’s an engineer at the global hardware and software company National Instruments, or NI.  Jeff’s also a musician and a volunteer for a project to bring robotics education to orphanages in India for marginalized children.  That project is an initiative from the nonprofit organizations Science in a Suitcase and The Miracle Foundation.  I started the talk by first asking Jeff what he does at NI.


[00:50 Jeff Munn]  At National Instruments I’m an applications engineer.  So I’m in a department that, basically it’s a new hire department called the Engineering and Leadership Program.  And it’s similar to a rotation program that other companies have.  So we – Part of our job is tech support.  That’s the main part of our job, to do tech support for our customers, and that takes up about half to two-thirds of our day, and the rest of our time, we have to choose how to develop.  If we want to do R&D projects or marketing projects or sales projects or help develop systems, we get to choose which paths, and we are encouraged to try out all of them.  And after around two years or so, we typically move on to a more specialized role. 

[Pius]  So then, this other stuff that you do – you volunteer for educational providers?

[Jeff]  Yeah, kind of.  I’ve always been into philanthropy, and so with my free time in the Engineering Leadership Program, I seek out ways to be philanthropic through the company, and my company’s very philanthropic.  Or the company itself is, but also beyond that, the company allows for its employees to seek out their own philanthropic ventures.  And so that’s what this trip is that we’re talking about.  There’s these two organizations.  One is called The Miracle Foundation that works with orphanages in India, helps them go from, like, where the kids are sick and starving and there’s no clean water, that type of stuff – helps get them from that to where the kids are healthy, they have education, they have love, they have food, they have clean water, they have a sewer system, that type of stuff.  Where they’re meeting the twelve basic human rights of the child as per the UN resolution.  It usually takes a couple years.  And then once – and this is something we just started last year – once they get an orphanage to this level, where it’s called in partnership status, the orphanage is meeting all these things, and the kids have abundance of food, abundance of love, abundance of education, where they’re not worried about their next meal, or they’re not worried about getting sick and dying, then they’re ready for extra educational initiatives.  So that’s where the Miracle Foundation partners with another organization called Science in a Suitcase.  Science in a Suitcase was started by some people at National Instruments, and some people at LEGO Education, and what they do is they bring STEAM initatives – and STEAM is science, technology, engineering, arts, and math.  So they bring them to mostly the underprivileged kids in other areas of the world.  They’ve been to Vietnam…

[Pius]  Is it mostly international stuff?

[Jeff]  Mostly.  They also have initiatives here in Austin.  Most – Aside from Austin they usually go international because there’s, I think there’s more need, there’s more opportunity there.

[Pius]  So what do you for them?

[Jeff]  For Science in a Suitcase?

[Pius]  Yeah, or for The Miracle Foundation.

[Jeff]  So these two organizations came together last year to put together a program to go over to India and start robotics programs at these orphanages that are now thriving.  So that the kids when they get done with being in the orphanage after they’re eighteen or whenever they leave the orphanage, instead of just being alive, you know, oh I survived – to be eighteen and didn’t die, so now what?  Now what do I do?  I’m still in poverty.  Now I have to go look for food on my own.  Maybe I hopefully will find a place to live.  So instead of that, which is a very real thing in India, being that the – India’s still got a class system. Technically it’s illegal, but it’s still there.  And the orphans are the untouchables, they’re lower than the lowest class, so nobody will help them, and nobody will do anything.  And because of corruption, they’ve made adoption illegal, so these kids are stuck.  So the idea is if we can go and – go beyond the education they’re already getting and give them marketable skills or help them to gain marketable skills in engineering or robotics specifically, then when they get done with the orphanage, then better chance of going to college, and better chance of getting a decent job and having – getting out of the cycle of poverty, so that they can start a family, so that their children aren’t orphans.

[Pius]  What are the kinds of things that that you teach them.  What’s in Science in a Suitcase?

[Jeff]  There’s two different things.  For this trip specifically, we use Lego We-Do robots. 

[Pius]  I haven’t heard of that.

[Jeff]  In America – So we have – We developed, National Instruments partnered with LEGO Education, like ten years ago or something like that, and developed…

[Pius]  Those Mindstorm kits, right?

[Jeff]  Yeah.  Mindstorms are for, I think the ages eight to fourteen, fifteen, something like that.  So for the younger kids there’s LEGO We-Do.  It’s even simpler.  The robot stay’s connected to the computer via USB.  It’s simpler robots.  Smaller pieces.  The software is bigger, simpler parts.  And it’s designed for like elementary school-aged kids.  It’s called LEGO We-Do.

[Pius]  That’s cool.  I haven’t ever seen those.  Is that a new thing?  Or has it been out for a while.

[Jeff]  No, it’s been out for a while, and in fact, Nicole Richard – she runs Science in a Suitcase – she was the R&D project manager that developed that, the LEGO We-Do software.

[Pius]  Oh, OK, so that was developed in Austin.

[Jeff]  Yeah.  It was developed in Austin, and the partnership was this woman named Lillian from LEGO Education.  They kind of made this, and now they have a nonprofit that they goes and uses it.  So it’s pretty cool how this has all come to fruition.  Nicole always says that she never imagined she’d be using her engineering education to get to play with toys. [laughs]

[Pius]  Right.  So you already went on one trip, right?

[Jeff]  Yeah, last year.  It was the first year that this ever has been done, piloting the program.

[Pius]  You’re going to do it again.

[Jeff]  We’re going to go to a different orphanage this year.  The idea is to be sustainable.  So the big, the short version and the big picture is, we go there and we teach the teachers how to teach this.  We have these flashcards.  We’ve got curriculum.  We’ve got stories, interactive stories that involve programming, so we hike up and, you know, you find this thing, and you find this egg, and you got to build a robot to move the egg because it’s too heavy.  What robot are we going to build?  Oh look here.  We can build a kicker and kick the egg.  That type of stuff to get the kids excited.  So we teach the teachers how to teach these robotics concepts.  And like from hardware building, to programming, to gear ratios, to software development, all that.  Then we bring in the older kids – so twelve years old to seventeen or eighteen – and we teach, while the teachers shadow us.  They watch us teach the class. And we have a translator of course. 

[Pius]  Right.

[Jeff]  And then we do that for about half a way.  Then we bring in the other half of the kids, and the teachers teach, and we shadow.  So they teach the same thing, so we make sure they know how to teach.  We do that for a couple days.

[Pius]  So it’s like a professional development in a way.

[Jeff]  Right.  And we’re teaching the older kids, they’re not just becoming, like, robotics experts, or whatever you call it.  We are teaching them to be mentors.  So the same time with the younger kids, we do what Science in a Suitcase does, usually, when they’re not doing this specific robotics initiative, they do these engineering and science kind of games and challenges with the younger kids.  In India, our challenge was to find things that, using everyday objects.  So they don’t have a lot of money.  They don’t have a lot of resources.  They can’t just buy a bunch of robotics kids.  They can’t just buy a bunch of engineering kits.  So one example is we – it was called a sail car.  So it was like a piece of paper and some straws and some popsicle sticks, and little Lifesaver candies, and tape, and they were to make a car that you blow into the sail, and the car goes, and then we did races.  So we did a bunch of little games like that, where we get the little kids excited about engineering and all along the way teaching concepts, like we said.  Measurement.  What if we make six hash marks at this distance?  What if we make six hash marks at this distance?  Both cars went six, but you can see one car went further.  How do we – what should we do?  And the kids are like: we should make them the same distance? Ah ha!

[Pius]  [laughs]

[Jeff]  Let’s make it meters.  So you know, we teach them engineering units, that kind of stuff.  So they get excited.  And then the long term goal – this has been happening after we left – is now, so once a week or so, I’m not sure the exact schedule, once a week or so the older kids have a robotics lesson with the teachers.  And they can work on stuff.  And about once a month the younger kids get a couple hours to go learn robotics, and some of the older kids teach that to the younger kids.  They’re the mentors.  And so it’s a cycle.

[Pius]  That’s really interesting.

[Jeff]  The teachers teach the older kids.  The older kids teach the younger kids.

[Pius]  Do you have teachers on your team?  Because it sounds like there’s some pedagogical tips and tricks that your team has heard before.

[Jeff]  So we have – A third person from Science in a Suitcase who I haven’t mentioned yet is Antonio Delgado, and he does have a pedagogical history.  He’s been a teacher before, and he understands that. And also last year one of the people that went on the trip, he also had experience teaching and educating children, and he also had several kids.  He was an older guy than us.  So he had I think three kids in high school or college, so he had been through teaching younger kids, and doing – They went to school obviously, but he was always helping them with their education at home.

[Pius]  Sure.  And because he’s a volunteer, he’s really into it. I bet he’s probably trying to be really good and learning all about the best ways to teach that kind of thing.

[Jeff]  Yeah, and he was great.  He actually has since retired from National Instruments to do philanthropy full-time. [laughs]

[Pius]  Wow. 

[Jeff]  He’s Paul Austin. 

[Pius]  Paul Austin, like the city of Austin?

[Jeff]  The city of Austin.  That’s perfect.

[10:00 music interlude]

[Pius]  Is it different teaching kids in India compared to here?

[Jeff]  India is a very, very, very different country.  And with the class system, as well – SO you don’t realize the level of poverty that these kids have are on a different level than what we see here in America.  So for example, we gave them – So the computer lab had just been built like a month before we showed up.  Also Whole Foods does a lot of world philanthropy, and this happens to be an orphanage that they also partner with.  So Whole Foods had actually gone and built this computer lab.  So one month before we teach robotics, these kids clicked a mouse for the first time.  They’d never done any of it.  So they just taught themselves how to use a computer.

[Pius]  Did you notice that?  When you were trying to teach them to program stuff in LabVIEW, or whatever it is…

[Jeff]  No.  They learn so fast.  They’d already figured it out.  They learn so fast.  The thing that blew my mind that I didn’t even realize is, so we open the LEGO We-Do kids, which is a kit of a couple hundred parts.  Little pieces.  And they open it up, and they take these Legos, and they didn’t know how to put Legos together.  They hadn’t seen Legos.  In American culture it’s just assumed as a kid a rite of passage is playing with Legos.  That’s part of growing up, is Legos.  And so we just – Knowing that education, especially engineering, is all about figuring stuff out, failing, trying again, failing, trying again until you get it, we just watched these kids struggle to figure out how these little pieces fit together with little bumps on them and the little holes on the bottom.  And most of them figured it out in a few minutes, and the ones that didn’t we went and helped.  But it just blew my mind.  It really was, like, we all just kind of took a step back.  These kids are coming from a very, very different place than we came from when we were kids, and that other kids do.

[11:52 music interlude]

[Jeff]  So there is a lot of corruption with charity organizations that work with orphanages.  Just all over, not just India.  There is a lot.  So it’s important – There are a lot of articles I saw recently that will warn you about doing philanthropy, and going in as a Westerner who doesn’t have a background in social work and education, it can be very disruptive to go into an orphanage.  These kids have very, you know, very emotionally difficult backgrounds.  And it’s good for them to have order and have a schedule.  Going to school at certain times.  When you eat.  That kind of stuff.  And so it can be disruptive, and so it’s really important for the organization that does this to spend a lot of time vetting.  And The Miracle Foundation is rated the highest possible rating with Great Nonprofits and the other major nonprofit ratings organizations.  And they just do full, very, very intense vetting.  And part of their process, when going from finding an orphanage to work with and then bringing them all the way to the point where they’re in Partner status, part of it is they have to have open books, for example.  If we’re going to give you some money to help you develop some of these programs, we have to see exactly where that money is going, and we need to see these benchmarks.  And so they go a little bit at a time, and then, once those benchmarks are met, here’s a little bit more money, and we go.  Not all orphanages make it.  There are some orphanages where for some reason the leader doesn’t have trust for Western culture, or has ulterior motives, or maybe there’s corruption, and that’s why they do it little by little.  But they – that’s really hard.  There are unfortunately some that they’ve started working with, where suddenly the books have been closed, where the orphanage wants to take the money, but they don’t want to tell The Miracle Foundation how it’s being spent.  The Miracle Foundation isn’t able to justify, is money going to the right place?  Because there’s so much corruption.  The hardest thing – I’ve talked to the people there – The hardest conversation that some of them have ever had is saying, well then, we can’t work together anymore.

[Pius]  But that’s kind of their job, then, to do a lot of that for you.

[Jeff]  Oh yeah, that’s not my job at all.  That’s all on them.

[Pius]  Well that’s great.  So if someone wanted to support The Miracle Foundation, they can just Google them or something.

[Jeff]  Yeah.  It’s a 501c3.  You can donate.  Actually for our fundraising – For this trip we each raised money.  It’s about four or five thousand dollars per person, is what we raised.  A little more than enough, but it covers all the airfare and expenses, and we have travel coordinators in India. India’s a very, very difficult country to travel in.  And so when we’re there, in order to really focus on the education and make sure we have meetings at night, and kind of say, OK well, this orphanage is like this, or this team is like this, or maybe we had this plan, but now that we’re here, let’s change it a bit to make sure it works, now that we’re here.  So in order to really focus on that, The Miracle Foundation has people that take care of all our lodging and our transportation, so that we don’t have to worry about any of that.  And I didn’t realize how difficult it is, but after the trip last year, a few of us went just traveling, and without The Miracle Foundation supporting us – it was just our own thing, like we normally would – and if we had to worry about where we were going to sleep, and how we’re going to get wherever we’re going, and also…

[Pius]  Your visas, and vaccinations.

[Jeff]  Yeah, all of that.  We did all that beforehand, but they just basically take care of everything, and there still is some extra money as well to help support their programs.  And so we do fundraisers with that. 

[Pius]  So I know you already talked about this a little bit, but how does National Instruments fit into this for this next trip?

[Jeff]  It’s interesting.  So this is – There’s a lot of people who choose to do different types of philanthropy.  Officially the way that they support all of our employees’ philanthropy is that they have matching.  So there’s a certain amount of money – I don’t know if I can say how much, but it is, but it’s a decent amount of money – where every year, if I donate up to a certain amount of money, they will match it dollar for dollar to any non-controversial, non-religious, non-fraternal, non-controversial organization.  Or really ventures.  Or even for charitable or religious organizations, like habitat for Humanity, or the Salvation Army.  They’re doing things that are non-religious, so they’re fine.  They just want to make sure they’re supporting people that are non-controversial and supporting everyone equally.  But they match a good amount of money.  So that’s the way they support our philanthropy.  But this trip specifically, it was new last year.  So they allowed us to go on it.  Each of us – we’re all in different departments.  A few of us signed up for the trip.  They talked to our individual managers, to choose if they wanted to give us the time off for that.  Some of us took unpaid leave, some of us took vacation, that kind of stuff.  We all made it work, and then the company also – We did some fundraisers on site, at work.  It’s a pretty big company.  We have about 4500 people in Austin, and our campus has three buildings.  There’re a lot of facilities to...

[Pius]  You can communicate. They encourage that kind of thing?  It’s not like they ban all fundraisers for this type of thing.

[Jeff]  Right, yeah.  So last year was – We had to makes sure that we weren’t spamming everyone.  We had to be careful the way that we phrased things, to make sure it was like, we weren’t pressuring anybody.  It was just like: here’s what’s going on.  We’d like for you to support us, and leave it at that.  Then we threw some events that we were allowed to promote.  We do a curry cook-off.  We also do a show called Robot Rock, which is going to be – excuse me – Tuesday, August 2nd.

[Pius]  OK, awesome.

[Jeff]  It coordinates with our company’s annual convention called NI Week.  So it doesn’t coordinate with it.  Just the timing is the same week as that.  So you promote to a lot of the employees that are in town, if it’s cool.  It’s at the Empire Control Room.

[Pius]  Yeah, I got to go see that show.

[Jeff]  Yeah.  We were able to – People donate to silent auctions.  We do these fundraisers, and the company allows us to promote at work.  This year they’ve taken a step a little bit further, and they’ve approved the curry cook-off as an official approved event.  It doesn’t really change many things other than the fact that we can promote a little bit more.  And I think that we’ll see.  As this becomes more of a huge success – it’s very, it’s pretty well-known within the company: most of the 4000 people that are in Austin, even if it’s only a dozen of us who go on this trip, most people know about it, are aware of it, because it’s kind of this big thing that we did.  It’s kind of gotten a lot of publicity.  We’ve gotten some write-ups in the company newsletter.

[Pius]  Well it sounds like a big deal, so that’s pretty awesome.

[Jeff]  Yeah.

[Pius]  I can tell that you are super excited about it, so that’s good, too.

[Jeff]  Yeah.  You know, I love it.  It’s maybe not – So engineering is fun and challenging, and as part of my job we support customers, and I have certain views.  Each of us has certain views about which companies are doing good things and which companies aren’t doing good things, and different stuff like that.  So there are definitely some companies that I work with that I might now 100% agree with what they’re doing with engineering, but I help them anyways, because the big picture of my company is that, you know, we are really supporting engineers and helping engineers solve the worlds’ greatest engineering challenges.  But what really helps balance it is me being able to just go out and be whole-heartedly philanthropic, and really feel like I’m making a difference, and really feel like I’m helping.  Even if I only help one person, you know what I mean?  If I can only see one person that I know I’ve affected their life in a positive way, that just really makes a big difference, I think.  To me personally, and it makes a bigger difference to them.

[19:31 music interlude]

[19:36 Pius]  Why’d you become an engineer?  How did you get into that?

[Jeff]  I’ve had a weird path to get where I am. [laughs]

[Pius]  That’s all right.  Other people have.

[Jeff]  Yeah.

[Pius]  If you want to get into it.

[Jeff]  Sure.  I’ll do the brief version of the story.  But I was a professional musician for about ten years.  And I played in a rock band, did some touring, and worked with record labels and stuff like that.  But I’ve always been good at math.  I self-paced and taught myself algebra when I was seven, for example.  And my parents were always: why are you doing music?  You have a brain.

[Pius]  Wow.

[Jeff]  [laughs]

[Pius]  Not to knock musicians, but OK.

[Jeff]  Right.  But you know they always saw me as having more potential.  But I was really passionate, and I love music, and I still play music.  This is a really great city for doing both engineering and music.  But after a long career, what I consider a long career, I – Things kind of winding down.  My band that I was in for a long time broke up, and I was doing more of the business management side of music at the time.  And about the same time, I accidentally watched a documentary.  I thought it was going to be something else, and it turned out to be a documentary on quantum physics.  And it changed my perspective.  It changed what I believe the definition of consciousness, what it means to exist, what our purpose in the world is.  It changed…

[Pius]  You went deep.

[Jeff]  Really deep.  Like I watched it every day for a week, trying to really, really understand it, because these were new concepts for me, like wave-particle duality, that type of stuff.  Quantum entanglement.  I got really interested.  So I started researching physics just on my own, and I got really, really into it.  Really into science.  And I thought, maybe if I’m smart enough to study physics, which I wasn’t sure I was – I know like math, but physics is just different, you know?  If I have the brain to handle science and engineering education, then maybe there’s – Maybe I can do more with my life than just stand on the stage and have people clap for me every three or four minutes.  Which was my experience in music. 

[Pius]  OK.

[Jeff]  And I know music can change people, and there’s – But the music I was doing, I was just playing rock and roll.  I was helping people have a good time.  Some of the songs, some of the lyrics, had a big impact on a few people, helped them get through some difficult times and difficult relationships.  And I had some experiences in my band, where there’s girls in the front row crying because the lyrics really touched them, and that’s really special.  And I really appreciate that.  But I felt like, if I could understand science and physics on a deeper level, I could do more.  I could impact more people.  I could do more good for the world, so that when, you know, at the end of my life when I’m looking back on it, I can make a much bigger impact by doing science and music.  Because I can incorporate both those passions.  I kind of tied into the idea also that in my music career, I kind of, as a drummer, I hit a ceiling with how much money I was making.  I was supporting myself, and I was fine.  I felt very comfortable, but because I wasn’t a songwriter, I didn’t have royalties that could come in later on.  So it was a kind of pay-per-gig kind of thing.  So if I eventually wanted to start a family, I would need to – In order to make really enough money for a whole family, I would have to be on the road like nine months out of the year.  Which means I couldn’t really be a good, active dad.  So I couldn’t do both.  So the goal, the long-term goal, which I’m now starting come to fruition, even though I don’t have a family yet, is a long-term, stable career that pays well enough to support a family and that engages me intellectually, and that I can make a big impact on the world.  And that’s the centerpiece of what I do.  And at night and on the weekends and my other time, I pursue my passion in music, and at the same time also possibly add income to it by doing some professional gigs, which I – I also have a couple bands which are just fun passionate bands, and I have one that’s a professional gig.  That is kind of additional income to engineering.

[Pius]  That sounds like a great representation of what engineering can be.  So that was pretty much it.  Are there any other questions you think I should ask future people about how to teach engineering better?  Anything you were ever curious about?

[Jeff]  Yeah, I mean engineering concepts – So I just learned by watching who know how to do it.  Like Paul Austin, who I talked about.  Watching him teach is like watching a little kid in an adult body.  He get’s so excited and riled up, it’s like: and then if we jump over here, then it’s this much!  But what if we jump this way?  And in working with Antonio Delgado, same thing.  He’s just so excited, and the kids just watch him like he’s this cartoon character teaching them.  It’s amazing.  But the challenge is: how do you not only get through to them, but how do you teach in a way where they want to learn, you know?  Because if a kid wants to learn, a kid wants to learn.  You don’t have to try hard.  A kid wants to learn math, you just say, hey look 4 + 2 equals 6.  The kid’s just like OK, got it.  4 + 2 = 6.  But if a kid’s like: why do I need math?  I like to read.  They’re not mutually exclusive, but the challenge is that, how do you get this kid excited about math?  Four books plus two books?  How many books do you get to read now? Six books?  Is that how you connect?  And that’s the thing.  The challenge is: how do you – It’s not just forcing kids to learn.  It’s: How do you get them to want to learn, and in an excited way?  And then taking it a step further, like as – in engineering education really, in my opinion, engineering education just teaches you how to learn.  You learn the fundamentals, but you really learn how to find the information, and then you get on the job professionally, and half the time you’re given a project, you’re like: I don’t know how to do that.  And you look it up.  And you learn.  Teach yourself.  So it’s how to teach these kids that – how do inspire them and show them that learning is fun, to the point where they don’t need you to be there standing in front of them explaining a concept.  They’re going to go out and find ways to learn.  They’re going to go and find ways to count and add rocks together, or count the number of trees, or add certain things, or keep score at a cricket match, for example, in India.

[Pius]  That’s like a challenge for teachers across the board, not just engineering, I feel like.

[Jeff]  I agree. Yeah. 

[25:27 music]

[25:32 Jeff]  What I try to do – One of the things I try to do through work – We have a robotics mentorship program.  So we partner with a bunch of local schools in Austin, everywhere from elementary to high school.  And then you can sign up if it works with your work schedule, and go and mentor a robotics classroom, or a robotics team.  And so I do that with middle schools.  Last year I did that once a year, and now I do it once a month.  I’m not doing it at the moment, but what I do is try as much and as hard as possible to relate it to a real-world scenario.  So like, these kids were building a car that needed to go forward, touch a wall, and come back to the start, autonomously, using LEGO Mindstorms. 

[Pius]  Yeah.

[Jeff]  The way that I was taught to approach it is: Start with the – I don’t know that the proper word to use is – but the slowest team, the team that’s working the most slowly.

[Pius]  OK.

[Jeff]  Because they’re not the dumbest or the slowest kids, they just maybe as a team are taking longer to dive in.  Start there and help them, and then go through the teams going from the teams that are the most behind, I guess, up to the smartest team, and give them a challenge.  Then back down to the slowest team again, and finish off the day like that, to help balance things out.  So when I get to the smartest team, for example, the kids already have the design, and they’re already going to win.  So then I challenge them.  I say, OK, what if – now everybody has the same software, right?  So let’s assume that everybody knows how to program as well as you guys do.  Let’s assume everybody has exactly the same program.  What advantages can you give to your robots in order to win this?  Let’s think about what – Let’s not think about are we getting to the wall and getting back.  What is it that we’re really doing? For example.  They’re like, OK, we’re not actually getting to a wall, we’re moving a distance.  I was like: What distance are we moving?  Your wheels are just trying to slide, and they realize that it’s not from the line to the wall, it’s from, with your wheels on the line, the front of the car to the wall.  So the further out the front of your car is, the shorter distance your car has to move.

[Pius]  OK, right.

[Jeff]  So they started building out from the front, to get themselves an advantage.  Well, they thought it was without limits, so they built this super-long car.  It wasn’t sturdy at all.  It has a tiny wheel way out it front.

[Pius]  [laughs]

[Jeff]  And then they went, and they ended up losing the challenge, because their car broke during the challenge.  And I – It was heartbreaking for them, but I was really excited about that.

[Pius]  [laughs]

[Jeff]  Because it was a big learning experience.  I didn’t want them to lose, but – So I asked them what happened, and they were like: it broke.  And I was like: so let’s imagine we’re here now in the real world, and somebody wants you to build something that is efficient.  What are things that we need to consider?  And they realized that it’s not just about building the most efficient thing, it’s also about – stability is important.  What about all these parts?  What about all these extra parts?  How much would all these cost?  They’re like, I don’t know.  Well it would probably cost more to have twenty parts than ten parts, wouldn’t it?  They go yeah, OK.  So we need to also consider that.

[Pius]  Do you think they really go something out of that?

[Jeff]  Absolutely.  This was the smartest group, so it was probably the two smartest kdis in the class that for some reason had paired up on the same team, which I don’t think was a good idea, but…

[Pius]  [laughs]

[Jeff]  They did.  They were really – from the very beginning they were already talking about more advanced concepts.  The class was already a little slow for them in the first place.  That’s how it is, you know, in a 30-person classroom.  Too fast for the slowest kid, to slow for the fastest kid.

[Pius]  Notorious problem.  I feel like there should be a whole podcast session on just how to group kids together.

[Jeff]  Yeah.

[Pius]  OK, well thank you so much, Jeff, and if anyone wants to find out more information, they can Google Miracle Foundation or Science in a Suitcase.

[Jeff]  That’s right.  And if you’re going to – if you’re looking to donating to our cause this year, we just set up the page for this year.  We haven’t really started fundraising, but it’s there.  So when you Google The Miracle Foundation, you can also Google like “Miracle Foundation India robotics 2016” or “National Instruments robotics 2016”.  I forget exactly what it is.  And we’ll have a fundraising page there, so you can donate directly to this trip, and that money goes to the whole team in general to help fund this trip for us.

[Pius]  Awesome.  Maybe I can put in the info in the text description of this podcast.

[Jeff]  Yeah, that’d be great.  Thank you.

[Pius]  Thank you so much, and we’ll talk again.

[Jeff]  All right, cool, thanks.

[29:36 music interlude]

[29:41 Pius]  For more on the organizations mentioned in the show, including the fundraising campaign for Science in a Suitcase, you can check out this episodes information for links.  If you liked this show, please spread the word about it.  Reviewing it on iTunes would be super helpful, as well as subscribing on iTunes, Soundcloud, Stitcher, or your favorite player.  On Twitter you can send me comments and suggestions @PiusWong.  You can also like and share the show on Facebook for updates. 

[30:31 Pius]  The views expressed in this podcast are our own, and they are not necessarily the opinions of any schools, companies, or other organizations with which we might be connected.  Our opening music comes from “School Zone” by the Honorable Sleaze, and our interlude and closing music is from “Learn to Live with What You Are Not” by Steve Combs.  Both are used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.  Thanks for listening, and until next time, take care.