Friday, April 5, 2013

Zen and the art of raising teenagers

Click here to watch the FIRST GTA West Regionals in full swing
Nothing could be more terrifying to most adults than being surrounded by thousands of sleep-deprived, cola-filled teenagers wielding power tools … unless you're at a FIRST Robotics competition, of course. Quanser, once again, was an active participant in this highly successful annual competition designed to give young nerds, and young nerd wannabes a chance to show off their cerebral mojo. This past week was the Greater Toronto Regional, one of the largest and most prestigious among the many FIRST regional tournaments. I had the pleasure of being Judge Advisor for the event. Joining me as part of the Judge team were Quanser engineers Peter Martin and Abdullah Dhooma. On the field, the newest Quanser engineer, Gilbert Lai was a mentor for Team 771 affectionately known as SWAT. Additionally, Quanser was once again the proud sponsor of Team 4001, the Rams of St. Robert CHS of Thornhill near Toronto. Our team competed in the Toronto East competition and Calgary.

This interaction with a high school competitions has multiple benefits for Quanser. At a pure business level, our future success depends on our ability to offer relevant products and services to a greater range of audiences. The fact that the K12 world has thoroughly embraced robotics and key essential concepts of control means our experiences today can help secure our success tomorrow. But perhaps the more important benefit is almost spiritual in nature. The competition depends largely on volunteers and in many cases, these volunteers are seasoned technical professional who sacrifice their own time to guide the teams through the monumental challenges that are at the heart of FIRST. I and my Quanser colleagues are examples of such people and year after year, we emerge from these sweaty, exhausting weekends with a newly found faith in the future and our youth. Any notion of the emerging generation being somewhat unfocused, or dispirited, or any disenchantments about the increasing volatility and meanness in society magically vanish for an all too brief moment.

I am currently in the latter stages of shepherding two teenagers into adulthood and like most parents in may phase, a large part of our lives is dedicated in worrying about whether we've provided the best guidance and environment for our kids to learn to make the best choices in life. At home, it's all too easy to dwell on the mistakes that we make as parents or our kids make as … well … kids. Or we repeatedly stress over things that didn't quite turn out as you thought they would or should. At a FIRST competition, you only see the good. Although there are countless disappointments — breakdowns, strategy errors, bad timing, and even the theft of an entire trailer full of essential equipment — the teams manage to achieve miracles. For judges like myself, the toughest part is figuring out how best to commend and congratulate students without resorting to clichés and overused platitudes. "Great job!" and "Way to go!" do not come close to capturing all the nuanced dimensions of success that the teams achieve. But in the end, we all get through it and the most precious part of the experience for us volunteers is we learn to become positive again and things make much more sense when we get home. Yes, it is true that a bulldozer could not clear away the clutter in my daughter's room but that is so insignificant when you consider that she pulled herself to an A grade from an earlier state of sheer terror in her AP math course.

I have been involved in one way or another with the FIRST program for almost twenty years but this year was my most active. And every year the importance of this competition becomes ever more clear. I consider myself extremely fortunate that I get to enjoy all of these existential and spiritual benefits but there are also distinct and real benefits to the company. Indeed it was at a FIRST event when Quanser CEO Paul Gilbert and Founder Jacob Apkarian ambushed me and persuaded me to sign on the dotted line. A very prophetic moment indeed.

P.S. Our team 4001 in their second year of competition was awarded the Innovation in Control award — an award typically won by the most seasoned and technically accomplished teams. I guess it's not a bad thing to have a leading mechatronic company as your mentors!

Tom Lee
Chief Education Officer, Quanser


Pete said...

Hey of this moment 4001 is in first place at the Western Canadian Regional! Go 4001!

Anonymous said...

$001 left a great impression at the Western Regional competition, not only due to their great robot, but their overall interest in the FIRST Robotics program. They are a great team.
Sarah Sils - Mentor SWAT 771

Sarah Sils said...

4001 impressed many at the Westerm Canada Regional, not only for their strong robot, but their passion for the FIRST Robotics program. What a great team!
Sarah Sils - Mentor 771

Peter Martin said...

Thanks Sarah, we're very proud of them. Hopefully thanks to the addition of the talented Gilbert Lai to the Quanser team, we'll be able to work more closely with 771 next season. Congratulations on the Chairman's Award, and good luck in St. Louis!