When Fred Wright approached me back in November with a proposal to set up a robotics partnership between his school – IS 93 in Ridgewood, Queens in Region 4 – and a school in Spain I thought “Great Idea.” When he said the plan would require a visit to the school to train the teachers and students, I thought of the proverbial “snowball in hell.”
So, when we boarded a plane on a recent January evening headed for IES “Lamas de Castelo” school in Carnota, in the northwest corner of Spain, by way of London and Santiago, the major city on the rugged Galician “Death Coast” (ships have a ball on the rough Atlantic and the rocky coast, though winding roads may also be a factor – three locals died in car crashes on the local main road on the Saturday night we were there) that snowball looked to be in mighty fine shape.
I first met Fred on a Saturday in October 2004 at a robotics training session. Fred was just one of the teachers chosen who seemed to be thinking – here goes another top-down program thrown at us from the region. He certainly had that look on his face when I introduced myself. Within a half hour Fred was leaping for joy and slapping five with his partner after writing a computer program to get a robot they built to move exactly 12 inches, stop, turn around and return. (Fred no longer has to get his own slippers.)
From that point on there was no stopping him. With the support of his principal, George Foley, Fred picked up the robotics ball and ran with it at a speed the fastest defense couldn’t stop. This year he grew the program into two teams (a maximum of 10 students are allowed on each team) and enlisted support from colleagues at IS 93.
Fred started blogs with his students and found an old classmate from high school in Indianapolis who is now a NASA scientist based in California to mentor the students and respond to their questions. http://fwright2.blogs pot.com/ and http://oorp.blogspot.com/.
The FIRST LEGO League robotics tournaments are sponsored by NYCFIRST where I have been a volunteer the past few years. This year’s theme is ocean-based and robots have 2.5 minutes to complete tasks like closing a broken oil pipeline and rescuing a submarine from a shipwreck in a simulated ocean, all on an 8x4 foot mat. Teams also do a 5-minute presentation on a research project in front of a panel of judges where they trace the impact of an ocean activity on the oceans’ health, biodiversity and productivity and create an innovative solution.
Fred, who lives in Long Beach, has ties to Rockaway through the many years he spent as a teacher at Rockaway’s notorious IS 53, where the chance of a robotics program like Fred has set up has even less chance than that famous snowball. Thanks to the now defunct UFT transfer he landed at IS 93. Fred met his wife Maria Vasquez at IS 53 (see, it was good for something). Maria, born in Galicia, is currently a bi-lingual psychologist in Freeport. They visit her hometown in Spain every summer and recently bought a house there. Fred asked some of her relatives to touch base with the local school principal when school resumed in the fall to see if they would be interested in a joint program with IS 93. Since that area of Galicia was the scene of one of the worst oil spills in history only 5 years ago, the Ocean Odyssey joint project seemed a natural.
When there was a positive response from the school’s principal Xosé Calvo, Fred hatched the idea of a visit before the NYC tournament (150 teams Riverbank State Park on January 28th and 29th.) He offered the use of his house, car rental and all other incidental expenses if he could get the Region and the DOE on board to cover the time (3 school days) and the plane tickets.
In the summer of 2004, Region 4 instructional technology LIS Teresa Bader asked me to help organize robotics teams in every middle school in the Region. We recruited Stephen Shapinsky, who had done great work with robotics in my former district in Williamsburg, to be a full-time robotics staff developer. Using funding procured from a massive infusion of money geared to technology from a federal Title IID grant, we were able to cover the entire costs of the program for over 20 schools. In our 2nd year of operation, some high schools and elementary schools joined the party. A recent Queens practice tournament at Long Island City High School in December attracted 34 teams. The success of the program has attracted attention from various areas of the DOE. A strong program was established in Region 2 in the Bronx which also hired a retiree experienced in robotics on a part-time basis and other regions have started doing the same.
Given this climate, Fred’s idea got a quick and positive response and Fred, Stephen and I were off. Dan Cohen, my 21-year-old cousin, volunteered to come along on his first trip to Europe as the designated schlepper. IS 93 donated the robotics kits and Teri Bader donated the ocean field set-up kit. With laptops, cameras and assorted other technical equipment, we didn’t have room for much clothing. The weather was expected to be similar to ours and Fred had just had heat installed in the house but we didn’t know what to expect. We would basically be four guys camping indoors.
After a 3-hour stop in London (we did go for the cheap tickets) we landed at the airport in Santiago de Compostela, one of the most beautiful cities in Spain. As we got in the car for the hour and half drive to Carnota, we would get our first and last view of the city, which we hoped to see on our last day before we left but ended up being rained out. Did I say that it rains a bit in Galicia in the winter? The drive along a winding road with mountains often on one side and waves crashing the shore on the other was magnificent. The short western coast of Spain (just north of Portugal) juts in and out of the Atlantic, creating stunning coves and beaches. With the sun setting over the Atlantic, which takes some getting used to for people who live at the beach on the east coast, the colors of the ocean changed with every curve we took.
It was almost 5 pm when, after a stop at supermarket to pick up cheese, bread and cold cuts (our first non-airplane food in 18 hours) Fred drove up narrow mountain roads to his house. It is built of stone as are most houses in the area. The 3-story 4 -bedroom house is about 3/4 of a mile from the Atlantic and you can see the waves crashing from the rear windows. We weren’t there 10 minutes before cousin José Tomas stopped by. José Tomas is a computer programmer and web designer who will be the local mentor for the project. He spoke English exceptionally well and we tired him out all weekend asking him to translate. I was surprised that he did not learn to speak Spanish until he was about 10 – the local dialect of Galicia is Galego and Spanish is the second language. Having people who didn’t speak much of either language trying to teach robotics to the kids and teachers in the school was looking like more of an adventure. Luckily Dan took Spanish in high school. But then again, we know what language education in American schools is like so we didn’t expect much, though he somehow managed to communicate with all the girls in the school that kept following him around.
After a little wine and cigars (I might get arrested if I tell what country they were from – and no one tell Maria we were smoking cigars in the house) José Tomas went off to make arrangements to meet Xosé Calvo later that evening so we could plan the activities for the next few days. We had Friday, Saturday and Monday (there is school in Spain on Martin Luther King Day) to train the teachers and students in building and programming the robot, build the field set-up kit, explain the missions for Ocean Odyssey, load all the software, etc. The highlight was to be a live video and audio feed between IS 93 and the Lamas de Castelo School on Friday. Given the 6-hour time difference, that would not be an easy task.
As in almost anything, nothing happens no matter how good an idea without having people who are committed to making it all work. We had Fred and his support network on the American side but we did not know what to expect on the Spanish end. Fred had never met Xosé but had had positive email contact. Still, we were apprehensive when we entered a small homey bar owned by Maria’s uncle Manuelo late Thursday evening to meet Xosé Calvo. His support would be the key to making the project a success.
To be continued in two weeks but if the suspense is killing you, check out Xosé’s blog at: http://xosecalvo.blogsp ot.com/. And if you can read the Galegan language, see the story in the local papers (the Wave of Galicia?) http:// www.elcorreogallego.es/index.php?option=com=content&task=view&id=40708
The New York City FLL tournament will take place on Jan. 28/29 at Riverbank State Park, West 145 Street and Riverside Drive. The event is free and open to the public and a great place to take the kids. And perfect for grown-ups who still love LEGO. The IS 93 teams will be competing on Sunday. It is unlikely there will be facilities to arrange live transmission back to Carnota.
Make sure to read the amazing story of Jeff Kaufman and his banishment from teaching at the Rikers Island school in Michael Winerip’s column in the NY Times: http://www.nytimes. com/ 2006/01/25/education/25education.html