Hindsight 20/18: Robotics (+ Summer Camps)
Sep 7, 2018 • Matt "Expand the Box" Wang • ~ 13 minute read • 2503 words
I’m currently in LA, lazing around and just getting things in order for me to start a new chapter of my life. I’ve had to close out my final responsibilities for a lot of the work that I’ve done: WAC, OMUN, and possibly most importantly, Robotics.
For those of you who know me well, you’d find that very surprising. And that’s a correct response. I have a very… long and complicated history with the activity at UCC.
As a young kid, I was super into robotics: I read tons and tons of books, watched documentaries, and built robots. I thought I’d become a robotics engineer some day, working at Boston Dynamics or Honda. So, when I joined UCC, I was excited. In Grade 7, robotics was even part of our science curriculum: we built robots using LEGO Mindstorms, which was exactly up my alley. Things looked bright for roboticist Matthew Wang.
As I went to the upper school (high school), I joined the robotics club. Already, I could tell that robotics wasn’t held to the same regard as it was in the prep (elementary/middle school) - instead of being in a nice lab with lots of nice parts, we were in the basement with a shoestring budget and rickety parts. Still, I loved robotics - and I wouldn’t let these small barriers get in my way.
We did VEX EDR, which is a type of robotics competition that involves high school students building and programming their own robots to compete in a game - imagine it being robot volleyball (though that’s an oversimplification). In that Grade 8 year, I spent a lot of time working on robots with other club members - learning the ropes on robot design and programming. We went to competitions, got super lucky and even won one (though we got totally carried). I made good friends along the way - it was a bonding experience that cemented one friendship with one person in particular, though we’ll discuss that later.
Our club never fundraised, which meant that we had to stick with our $200 yearly budget - which is nothing when you realise one robot costs over $2500. That year, I also proposed that we start fundraising - so we could use parts that actually worked! After spending a fair bit of time discussing it with other club members, we decided to do a popcorn sale: it has low startup costs, low ingredient cost, and doesn’t require any special knowledge (opposed to a bake sale, for example). I was really committed to this cause: I ordered the machine, got the kernels, oil, salt, bags, everything.
We ran the event in a winter marketplace our school had, and it was a huge success - we raised about $500, which is more than double our yearly budget! And, it was an experience I loved doing - it’s really fun making and serving popcorn.
My Grade 9 year was strange, for many reasons, robotics being one of them. Our club head (and fearless leader) graduated, going to CMU for robotics (which is amazing for him), and he was replaced by two seniors that year, both of which were my mentors and role models (albeit in very different ways). As they saw the issues with a sudden transition in power, they started grooming club heads for every year - which included myself and two close friends (at the time), which I thought was awesome. As a result, I spent less time building robots, and more time working on the administrative side of things: pitching for more money, organizing trips and permission forms, and the beloved popcorn sale - something I ramped up to three times a year.
Combining that with other extracurriculars ramping up (being a viable competitor in debate, seriously committing to WAC and Convergence, starting MUN) actually meant that I spent almost zero time working on actual robotics. I’d still occasionally help out with other people’s robots, or help debug some coding issue, but I never seriously improved at robotics.
Finally, we had one new member who was a year older than me - a robotics genius, but an interesting character. For those of you who know me well personally, you know who this is. It becomes interesting.
The next year, our club heads graduated, and their grooming process kicked in - I became a club head, along with the person a year older than me, one of the kids in my grade, and a senior who recently joined the club. We were an odd group - and not the best executive team - but we mostly made it work.
I continued with my administrative role, spending even less time working on robots - I can count on one hand how many times I sat down and seriously helped someone with their robot. Reasonably, this impacted my ability to be a club head - since I didn’t have an in-depth understanding of what our members worked on, I couldn’t accurately represent what they wanted to the school administration or to other students.
Counterintuitively, being the head of robotics had leaked into my personal image, and as I became less involved in the everyday workings of the club, more and more people believed that I was the heart or soul of it. In hindsight, I regret not correcting them and pointing to the real core (even more counterintuitively, the friend who wasn’t made a club head).
As the year went on, it became more apparent that this setup was doomed to fail - though part of that is hindsight talking. I’d consistently get into arguments with the club head who was a year older than me. We had startlingly different visions of what the club should do and how it should act, and took it very personally.
During this time, we performed significantly worse at competitions even though we had more funding, partially due to our inexperience and partially due to all these leadership squabbles. This was the core of the argument that I was embroiled in: was our failure due to a lack of support and resources from the school, or a problem with our club culture and how it functioned as an institution. I believed it was the latter - but even I didn’t really know what the answer was.
My Grade 11 year was the beginning of the end. It was arguably my most stressful year in high school, as loads and loads of commitments built on a shaky foundation all collapsed on me at once. At that point, I literally spent zero time doing actual robotics - and I couldn’t even make all the competitions. I’d control the club like a man behind the curtain, except this man didn’t really know what he was doing.
The club leadership that year was the three “OG” kids in my grade and my ideological opposite in the grade above me. Tensions got worse and worse, as did our arguments. At the time, I thought this person was stupid beyond belief and their position was indefensible - but in hindsight, I can understand where they’re coming from (even though I still disagree). Some of the issues with my leadership were legitimate: how can someone who only manages popcorn sales and trips really manage a robotics club?
As the year went on, I got more and more frustrated - at not only the club, but at life in general. The arguments got more and more heated, and they involved more and more people. At that point, robotics was no longer an activity that I enjoyed. That’s when I knew something had to change.
At the end of the year, I called a special meeting to vote on our club heads for the next year. At UCC, this almost never happens - most club heads are appointed by a teacher (like debating) or by the previous club heads (like robotics). Nevertheless, I think it was a really good idea - I genuinely saw myself as a bad club head, and I didn’t want to lead a club of people who didn’t want me to lead them.
It turns out, my instincts were right. Out of the 8 votes (yes, we had a small club), only four voted for me to stay - and I wasn’t one of them. Even though it wasn’t a “true” majority, I ruled that it was over for me. I essentially kicked myself out of my own club.
In all my years at high school, I had never seen that happen before.
The only club head who moved on to the next year was John, the true heart and soul of the club that I had identified earlier. The other two “OG” kids in our grade (myself and one more) were voted out, and the final club head graduated.
Under John, the club did amazingly. We dug ourselves out of our competitive rut, raised more money, and created a club environment that didn’t have the same fracture that it did when I lead it. It was a truly happy club - even though it had a few quirks (that I won’t delve into).
It’s a bittersweet victory. On one hand, I am more than elated to see a club that I had poured literally thousands of hours into finally succeed. It was the club that I had always wanted.
I still helped out when I could - with the popcorn sale (something that essentially became my child), with occasional administrative stuff, and to mentor some of the younger members. I was still friends with the members - and I loved spending time with them.
But I couldn’t be in it.
interlude: fault lines
I’m unsure if the success of the club is caused by my departure. The pessimist (and the sadist) in my head says that it is, but there are convincing arguments that say otherwise. The graduation of one of the club heads also significantly changed the environment into one that was more welcoming. We had more members join that year, and our existing younger members became more committed. We got significantly more support from the school, both financially and administratively, due to a new principal and teacher. John is a great leader.
Maybe if I was still there, the club would be doing as well - or better.
I don’t dwell on this too much - there’s no way it could be good for my mental health. But, on the record, I truly do think that I was a bad club head - and me not being there meant the club became more successful.
one last hurrah
In December, I was asked to kickstart a new program at UCC Summer Camps: Robotics Camp. I would be the youngest director that they’ve ever hired, and I’d have to create the entire program myself: curriculum, inventory, staff.
For the pay itself, it didn’t seem worth it. I knew that I could earn significantly more (i.e. almost an order of magnitude) if I worked a web development job or learn much more from doing a software engineering internship. But, something nagged at me - this was a way for me to make up for the my (debated) failure to the club. This was tens of thousands of dollars of new equipment that our club could use, longstanding infrastructure for them to borrow, and a new summer job opportunity for any member of the club.
I worked hard, probably much harder than I needed to. I spent countless hours devising a curriculum, combing through the club’s inventory to figure out to order, unpacking and assembling everything, hiring staff, and managing a pretty large budget. Much of this work I couldn’t have done without the support of John and the club - something I’ll always be grateful for.
You’ll notice that John is the only club member that I refer to by name, and that’s intentional. When I write blog posts, I try to only include names if everything I write about them is positive, and this is no exception with John. He’s been an amazing leader of the club, leading it to one of its best years in a long time. He deserves much more credit than he receives, and deeply cares about the club.
Above all though, John has been one of my closest friends - someone I can rely on for almost any problem. The best thing about doing robotics has been becoming better friends with John - it makes the grind worth it.
Overall, the camp was a huge success. We were booked out for almost the entire summer, and the program ran better than I expected. I am genuinely proud of the work that I’ve done: even though my monetary compensation was subpar (and worse for my counsellors), I do feel fulfilled that I made hundreds of kids happy, and sparked an interest in robotics for them.
I won’t delve too deeply into what happened at camp - in the grand scheme of things, it’s uneventful and probably unimportant. It was exhausting, but in a way, it was also a good break from my normal workaholic life. Plus, it was an opportunity for me to practice my people skills, and learn more about management styles.
I think I’ll look back fondly on this summer.
There are many exciting things for the robotics club. For one, they now have all of this equipment and infrastructure from the camp. Furthermore, they have a sick new room: we’ve been moved out of the basement into the brand new design lab, a brand-spanking-new room that looks like it’s straight out of Apple’s headquarters (complete with 3D Printers, Laser Cutters, drills, presses, and the works). They have a school that has finally put a larger emphasis on STEM (UCC was 10 years too late), and a teacher who I have the utmost confidence in. Robotics is being integrated into the school curriculum, which means an influx of more members - something that’s always good for the club.
In a way, this makes me jealous. If I was just a bit younger, I would’ve avoided all of these financial problems and member tensions, and probably would’ve stayed on track to become a robotics engineer.
On the other hand, I know that some of these benefits come directly from my actions - and that if I was born later, the space wouldn’t be the same.
Regardless, I’ll be keeping in touch with the club. It’s definitely an interesting bunch of guys, but I love them with all my heart - and I hope that the upward trend that John created just keeps on going.
One day, I’ll hope to visit the John Mace Memorial Robotics Wing, where I’ll be a footnote in a long list of accomplishments that our club made.
Until next time!