April 23, 2015

Resilience, or How to Make Lemonade

The Rocky Mountain πRates (Quinn, Cameron & Jack)
Regular readers of Among Friends’ know about the Rocky Mountain πRates (Pirates). The robotics team, comprised of current and former Friends’ School students, is a two-time world champion.

They entered this year’s national VEX competition last weekend as a firm favorite, one of the teams to beat.

Sometimes, things don’t always go according to plan.

The πRates, 4th grader Quinn Kiefer and 7th graders Cameron Hoeffler and Jack Kiefer, were prepared.  Their robot was performing perfectly in practice, their programming was first class, and the kids were well trained. They knew exactly what they needed to do.

There was only one snag. The robot, named "Stack-a-mole", didn’t cooperate. 

Quinn talking to a VEX judge
During each practice session, it performed perfectly.  Every time the boys took the robot out onto the competition floor, it failed somehow.

Again and again and again.

In ten out of eleven competition rounds, "Stack-a-mole" didn’t come through.  There was a different type of mechanical failure each time.  After every failure, the πRates took the robot backstage, got it going, ran it through its paces successfully, and each time, back in competition, something went wrong.

It was maddening.  And heart-breaking.  A year of design work, computer programming, practice, and flawless execution was going down the tubes. Not only that, but each competition stage involves cooperating with another team.  Time and time again, Quinn, Jack and Cameron felt they were letting down other teams as well.
If this had happened to me, especially at age 9 and 12, I would have kicked the robot down the stairs. “To heck with it!”  Not these Rocky Mountain πRates.

They stuck with it. Their parents, Carol and Jennifer, reported to me that, throughout the whole ordeal, they kept their confidence and continued to work in practice to try and make things right.  They believed in all of the hard work they had put in to create their robot.  They kept a positive attitude when it became clear that they weren’t going to “three-peat” as world champs, and they cheered on their rivals.

Paul Tough is the author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character and a leading national expert on resilience. He writes:

“What matters most in a child's development, they say, is not how much information we can stuff into her brain in the first few years. What matters, instead, is whether we are able to help her develop a very different set of qualities, a list that includes persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence.”

It appears that these boys have developed these qualities in abundance.  Jennifer and Carol tell me that they were more proud of the team at this year’s competition than in the previous two victorious years.  This is the stuff that success is built from.

The πRates celebrating with
coach Jason Kiefer
Jennifer directly contributes the boys’ increased grit to the education they are receiving (or have received) at Friends’ School. “Lord knows they didn’t get it from me!” she exclaimed. She sees the emotional maturity and growth her sons have seen here at Friends’. These kids understand that the learning experience is more important than the product or the win. She and Carol were extremely impressed by the grace and sportsmanship their sons displayed, and the resilience they showed.

At the end of the contest, when asked if he had any regrets, Jack responded “Yes – I wish we had spent more time on the design process.”

That is the true mark of a winner.

Post-script: Despite not winning on the competition floor, the Pirates did come home with the THINK award, judged independently for Excellence in Programming.  Despite the mechanical failures, they were deemed to have designed an incredible robot.  Congratulations to them all! 

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