Robots, robots, everywhere! If you follow current news on science or technology like we do at IMACS, then you’re bound to have noticed that robots are a popular topic. From the Roomba vacuum to the da Vinci Surgical System, these mechanical marvels affect many aspects our daily lives from the mundane to the life changing. Along the way, numerous robotics programs for school-aged children in the US and around the world have been established, and earlier this year the Boy Scouts of America introduced its new robotics merit badge.
Why the burst of interest over the past five or so years? Here are a few key factors that have recently come together to foster this growth: (1) The global economic downturn put a spotlight on which types of job skills are in demand and will be even more in demand in the future; (2) Industry and political leaders regularly note the gap between those job skills and the current levels of student participation and achievement in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM); (3) Robotics technology has become more affordable and accessible with companies such as LEGO developing robot kits that, while targeted toward children, enable the exploration of complex engineering and computer programming challenges; and (4) Education leaders recognize that robots could be used to engage children in fun and interesting activities that would deepen their understanding of all STEM subjects, along with teaching some important life skills.
There are at least two types of robotics programs: those that integrate robotics as part of a course curriculum and do not lead to a competition, and those that are organized as extracurricular activities and do lead to some type of competition. In a typical competition-based robotics program, each team of students is responsible for designing, building, and programming an autonomous robot to accomplish a set of pre-defined engineering challenges. The autonomous nature of the robots requires students to know or learn how to program them using a computer programming language. Some programs have separate showcases or entertainment-based categories that emphasize imagination and creativity. Most stress the importance of some kind of life skill, from simple teamwork all the way up through a whole menu of real-world skills that form a key part of the judging criteria.
Whatever kind of emphasis you’re seeking, there is likely to be a robotics program out there to match. If you’re just starting to explore options for competition-based programs, here is helpful list of national organizations to start with:
• Founded in 1989 by the inventor of the Segway Personal Transporter.
• Over 2,000 teams from across the US and from 11 countries participated in 2011.
• There are four main divisions: FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) is the flagship program for high school students. FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) uses a head-to-head sports tournament model and is also for high school students. FIRST LEGO League (FLL) is for ages 9-14. Jr. FIRST LEGO League (Jr. FLL) is for ages 6-9.
• Rookie team registration for one FRC event and the kit of parts costs $6,500. Teams may register for additional events at $4,000 each, and they may spend up to $3,500 on additional parts for their robot. The FRC Handbook provides a sample budget for a rookie team attending one local regional event that totals almost $13,000, and that does not include any travel costs. If you had high hopes for your child competing in FRC but were not aware of the magnitude of the cost, don’t pass out just yet—finding sponsors is actually an integral lesson of the competition, as much as securing funding is part of research and development in the real world. The FTC program requires a much smaller investment, but one that is still in the range of $1,500 to the low thousands. At the other end, registration for Jr. FLL is $25 and the base kit costs about $140.
• Students may only use the official robot kits and other materials that are tightly prescribed in the program rules.
• While engineering is the heart of these competition, FIRST programs are equally designed to develop people and life skills such as time management, collaboration, communication, self-confidence, and leadership.
• Founded in 1993 by Texas Instruments.
• In 2010, over 850 middle and high schools participated. They are primarily based in Texas and surrounding states and in the Southeast.
• For the robotics game, teams compete four-at-a-time in round-robin matches. All teams must submit a project notebook describing their engineering design process. Students have the option of competing for an overall award that covers qualitative factors such as oral presentation, an educational exhibit, the engineering notebook, and spirit and sportsmanship in addition to robot performance.
• Participation for schools is free. There is no registration fee, and all materials are supplied at no charge. How can this program be free? Corporate sponsors provide all of the high tech equipment, which must be returned each year, as well as the software. The set of consumable materials is fairly simple and includes basic items such as plywood, PVC pipe, wire, screws, and tape. Creativity and inventiveness are essential qualities in this program.
• Participants are required to use the control system kits currently provided by corporate sponsor VEX Robotics (discussed below).
• BEST describes itself as being less about building robots and more about teaching students how to analyze and solve problems.
• Established in 1997 by the KISS Institute for Practical Robotics.
• Over 300 teams participated in 2011, including teams from Qatar. US teams are primarily from the West, Northeast, Texas/Oklahoma, Greater D.C. Area, and Great St. Louis area.
• The program is for middle and high school students. All teams, regardless of the ages of the students, participate in the same competitions.
• Teams compete unopposed in seeding rounds followed by head-to-head double elimination rounds. Those who are eliminated have the opportunity to be paired in cooperative alliance matches. All teams must also document their engineering process and present this work as part of the tournament competition. Students who prefer a non-competitive platform may submit an autonomous robot project, including robots integrated into artwork, to the showcase. Students may also submit short papers on specific robotics-related topics.
• For the 2012 season, the subsidized registration fee for US teams of $2,500 covers tournament participation, the Botball robotics kit, and programming software. The unsubsidized fee is $3,200. Reusing equipment from prior seasons reduces the registration fee by $530. Teams are encouraged to find corporate sponsors and to host fundraisers to defray costs.
• Students must use the official robotics kit, which includes an iRobot Create robot base, various additional parts, and all necessary tools to build the robot. The required programming language is KISS C, which was designed by the organizing sponsor for teaching robotics.
• One of the factors that Botball tries to differentiate itself with is the support it gives to educators. Every Botball region hosts a hands-on professional development workshop for team leaders, and the reusable equipment remains with them after the tournaments for use in the classroom.
• Started in 1998 by RoboCup, an international organization whose purpose is to foster artificial intelligence and robotics research.
• In 2011, 251 teams from 29 countries participated in this predominantly international competition.
• The program targets students aged 19 or younger. While no minimum age is specified, students must be able to read, as well as write computer programs for their robots without substantial help from adults. Age divisions are broken into teams where all students are 14 and under, and teams where any student is over 14.
• There are three competition categories: soccer, rescue, and dance. The soccer challenge pits 2-on-2 teams of autonomous robots against each other. In the rescue challenge, robots must quickly identify victims within a simulated disaster scenario. The dance challenge is further divided into dance and theatrical performance and is designed to encourage creativity.
• Students may choose which robot platform and programming language to use, and they may also add additional equipment to the platform.
• RoboCup Junior differentiates itself by keeping the challenges the same from one year to the next. This point of this approach is to allow students to learn from their prior experiences and improve their algorithms and hardware as they grow.
• Established in 2000 by Lawrence Technical University in Michgan.
• Almost 500 teams from the US, Canada, China, Korea, and Singapore participated in the 2010-2011 season. Nearly half of the students were from Michigan.
• The program has a division for students in grades 5-8 and one for high school students.
• Competition styles can be generalized into two categories: games that use fixed rules and open-ended exhibition. The game challenge changes each year. The exhibition category is designed to encourage creativity and includes a robot fashion and dance show and a robot parade.
• Registration is $50 per team, and some site hosts may charge an additional fee of the same order. Suggested robot kits cost about $200-250, and a playing field costs about $50.
• Students may choose any type of robot technology and programming language, as well as use tape, glue, bolts, nuts, etc. to construct their robots. Components and materials used to build robots and playing fields may be reused from year to year, thereby reducing cost.
• The focus is firmly on learning computer programming. Additional activities like giving a presentation on the team’s research findings are not included.
• Founded in 2004 by the president of the Robotics Society of America.
• At RoboGames 2011, 239 teams from 17 countries participated.
• All ages are welcome, so many teams consist of adults. Junior League events are restricted to participants aged 18 and under.
• RoboGames is more a collection of over 50 smaller competitions all happening in the same place over several days. This explains why it is promoted as the “Olympics of robots.” In fact, most of the events are sports-based. The Junior League does have more engineering-based events, as well as creative showcase events.
• The registration fee for most events is $50, but none costs over $250. Participation in many of the Junior League engineering events is free. The cost of equipment varies by event.
• Each event has its own rules for building and controlling the robot. For example, the LEGO-based competitions require LEGO parts, but other events leave the choice up to the participant. Some contests allow for remote-controlled robots, so those particular events would obviously not stress computer programming skills.
• The main goal of RoboGames is to encourage robot builders to expand outside their area of specialization as a way of fostering a cross-pollination of ideas.
VEX Robotics Competition
• Established in 2008 by Innovation First, the maker of HEXBUGs and owner of the VEX Robotics brand name.
• More than 3,500 teams from 20 countries participate in over 250 tournaments worldwide.
• The program is for middle and high school students, although a college-level challenge was recently added.
• In tournament matches, two alliances composed of two teams each compete against one another. Each match has a period where robots are controlled autonomously and a period where they are remotely operated.
• The registration fee for each team is $75. Robot starter bundles from VEX cost $300 for the simplest version and can go well above $550 for the most sophisticated model. The competition field and perimeter kits sold by VEX total $1,600, but the company also offers tips on how to build low-cost options. Total competition costs can definitely breach the $2,000 mark.
• As you might guess, teams are required to use the VEX Robotics platform.
• VEX bills its competition as “the fastest growing robotics program and largest middle and high school competition in the world.”
For additional information and resources on robotics as an educational tool, check out the following organizations:
Carnegie Mellon Robotics Academy – The academy is part of the university’s world-renowned Robotics Institute. Their mission is to use the motivational effects of robotics to excite students about science and technology.
NASA Robotics Alliance Project – The project’s mission is to create a human, technical, and programmatic resource of robotics capabilities to enable the implementation of future robotic space exploration missions.
Adam Sternberg began his path to engineering as part of Project MEGSSS in Broward County, Florida. (The principal curriculum developers and teachers for the Florida MEGSSS program founded IMACS in 1993 using the same Elements of Mathematics courses.) He went on to earn his B.S. in Electrical Engineering from the University of Maryland College Park and his M.S. in Electrical Engineering with a concentration in Digital Signal Processing from Florida Atlantic University. In his role as a software engineer for innovative companies such as AlliedSignal (now Honeywell) and RadiSys, Adam was responsible for developing software used with flight navigation tools and telecommunications products. He is currently a senior software engineer at Pace Americas. In his spare time, Adam has even been a volunteer teacher, sharing his knowledge of computer programming and university-level logic with elementary school students.
You were part of the first group of students in the Broward County MEGSSS program. What were your thoughts when you started progressing through the curriculum?
The MEGSSS curriculum (which has now evolved into the IMACS curriculum) was different from anything I had seen previously. In the standard honors math class, my friends were mainly doing more of the same material as the regular class at a faster pace. In MEGSSS, we covered the expected topics, but the majority of the time was spent learning concepts that students usually don’t see until college. In most math classes, theorems are stated as fact, and then students are expected to apply them. In MEGSSS, learning how to prove those theorems from principles proven earlier was an essential part of our education and resulted in us having a deep understanding and appreciation of the subject.
What knowledge and perspective did you gain during that time that influenced the career path that you took?
The subject matter from MEGSSS that helped the most was logic (predicate calculus). I found I always had an affinity with logic and the structure of proofs, and that made me comfortable with the process of coding in a high-level language, such as C or Perl. The MEGSSS/IMACS experience in general, with its emphasis on logical proofs building on previous theorems and axioms to explore new topics, evolved into an ordered approach to problem-solving that is the hallmark of a good engineer of any discipline.
Please describe what a software engineer does, big picture and day-to-day.
A software engineer is responsible for the design, implementation, and maintenance of a software product, whether it be a Web site, an app for a smartphone, or the radar on an airplane. This includes designing proper test cases for the product, and identifying and correcting bugs found in the product code. Software engineers are also often called on to make judgment calls in triaging bugs found during a test cycle and determining both the severity and the likelihood of a bug appearing in the field with a released product. As software and the equipment they run on are rapidly evolving, software engineers must also make sure that they are familiar with the latest trends in programming languages, algorithms, tools, and related technology.
In your experience, what kind of personality and/or non-technical skills makes a person well-suited to be a software engineer?
Good communication skills are vital to be able to explain technical details to a non-technical audience (such as customers or the sales team) because software engineers often work in a corporation and not a vacuum. Also, good detective skills (such as observing behavioral patterns) are vital to finding bugs. Finally, no one’s code is perfect, and colleagues and supervisors will find fault with an engineer’s design or code in a review, so a thick skin is also helpful.
What education, skills and training make for success in the job?
A Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science, Computer Engineering, or related field (such as Electrical Engineering) is vital, and a Master’s Degree is often preferred. As an engineer’s career progresses, tasks may become more senior in nature, so leadership, project management, and even mentoring skills are good to have. Structured problem-solving skills, like what students develop at IMACS, and solid design skills are vital.
Margaret E. Kosal is an assistant professor in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at Georgia Tech. She earned her Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign and her B.S. in chemistry at the University of Southern California. During graduate school, Prof. Kosal co-founded a high-tech start-up company that developed sensors to detect explosives, chemical weapons, and biological weapons. She was a Science Fellow in the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University and served as Science and Technology Advisor in the Defense Department. Prof. Kosal’s research explores two interrelated areas: weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and emerging technologies.
I was asked to write a perspective on girls and women in science – what I’ve seen change in the years since I was a girl interested in science, what I see now as a professor and role model for up-and-coming students (both male and female), and what still needs to change. The observations and stories below reflect my experience as a small-town girl from the rural Midwest who went to a big city on the West Coast for college, who served in the Pentagon, and who currently teaches at a major research university in the South.
This year was the twentieth anniversary of my graduation from high school, so reflection seems apt. When I graduated high school, I knew that I wanted to study the physical sciences. I loved chemistry, physics, and astronomy. I loved the idea of understanding and being able someday to push the boundaries of knowledge myself. For me, pursuing science was about discovery, exploration, and understanding how the Universe worked. Math and science were ‘hard.’ I liked the challenge; I wanted to be challenged.
The Importance of Good Teachers
It didn’t take 20 years ago for me to realize the importance of teachers to students’ success, especially fostering and supporting girls’ interest in science and math. As much now as they were then, high school teachers are essential to sustaining US capacity in science and technology and even more crucial for encouraging girls in the sciences and mathematics. I suspect that all the girls in my high school felt the subtle social cues (or explicit comments) dissuading us from actively pursuing and excelling in science. Every scientist we learned about, every constant, every equation – if it had a name, it was that of a man. We noticed as young girls in science that there didn’t seem to be a place for women in science. I was fortunate to have very good teachers overall, but my chemistry teacher specifically deserves recognition. Girls, just as much as the boys, were called on and encouraged to contribute to discussions, to actively engage in hands-on lab experiments, and to lead in the demonstrations that we organized at local elementary schools. He spoke plainly and openly about issues of equity with respect to representation and participation in the classroom. What we may not have been able to articulate as teenagers, he validated. He made it a normal rather than an exceptional part of the conversation: girls were good in science and were expected to participate actively. It just was; it wasn’t special. The standards were the same regardless of gender, and we each had a fair shot to succeed or to fail.
In today’s era of backlash and hyper-criticism of teachers, I’m not sure that a teacher, especially a young one, could do that. At the same time teachers like my high school chemistry teacher are needed more than ever now. I am concerned greatly about the increasing disincentives and hostility toward schoolteachers that has punctuated US domestic politics this year. That is a significant change from just ten years ago. Because much of what affects schools happens at the local level, parents can truly have an impact in their own districts. I encourage all parents to write letters to their local newspapers and blogs and to attend school board meetings. Be a voice in support of the teachers who will have an impact on your children’s future.
The Blame Game
As an undergraduate student, something my research advisor told me still rings true to this day. At the time, he had been supervising graduate students and post docs for more than 20 years. He noticed that when experiments fail, female students blamed themselves. On the other hand, he observed that the male students almost always attributed failure or negative results to the experiment, to the equipment, to the reagents, etc. While my own students aren’t doing experimental chemistry, I still see the same patterns in some of them almost 20 years later. Some of the best and most conscientious female students in my research group do this. I make a point to alert them to this behavior, and sometimes that’s enough to be effective. I also gently remind them to stop apologizing for successes or failures, and when things don’t work out, to see those situations as learning opportunities.
This likely isn’t a phenomenon that starts in college. Girls (and boys) need opportunities to risk intellectually, to fail, and to acquire the skills to deal with the consequences. As one of my favorite posters from the Materials Research Society starts “Science: If you’re not making mistakes, you’re doing it wrong;” failure is part of basic research in the sciences and engineering. A recent study written up in the New York Times, “Can A Playground Be Too Safe?“, discusses how increasing efforts aimed at eliminating physical risk on playgrounds were seen to impact emotional development negatively in a broader context, as well as making playgrounds boring for kids. For much longer, girls have been insulated from or socially prompted to avoid outright that kind of physical behavior and risk. My recommendation: more rock climbing, camping, soccer, and skateboarding for girls (and boys)!
Mentoring Can Make a Difference
As an undergraduate and as a young graduate student, I did not receive informal guidance or mentoring in the process of navigating grad school, including the admissions process, nor in understanding what being a professional scientist entailed. I didn’t realize this omission then, but I obviously found my way on my own to some extent. While very few would describe me as passive or timid, I’m not sure that I would have known how to ask for such guidance. For me, those experiences and lessons learned likely contributed to my independent initiative. At the same time, I wonder how much further I might be in my career had I had the informal or formal mentoring that many of male peers received. I don’t see this lack of mentoring as having changed all that much either. If universities would more publicly and formally support mentorships and if more professors reached out proactively to offer guidance, all students and the science and engineering disciplines as a whole would benefit.
US Moving in the Right Direction
On a wider level, I’ve observed greater recognition of the increasing need for American students to pursue studies in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields (e.g., the National Academy of Sciences 2005 report “Rising Above the Gathering Storm“). Over the last 30-plus years, efforts to encourage women and minorities to pursue science and mathematics have been supported and established by federal agencies like the National Science Foundation, by national-level private organizations like the American Association of University Women, and by others such as the organization MentorNet. Those models for getting girls and minorities to pursue STEM fields should be explored for general application to the US population.
The skills that I learned, whether I knew it or not, while being a female chemistry student and as a young female PhD scientist, have helped me in all of my pursuits, whether while serving as Science and Technology Advisor in the Pentagon or while organizing skydiving jumps. That definitely hasn’t changed. They’ve all required robust analytical problem-solving and independent initiative, and each time, the majority of my colleagues have been male. Some may think of this as having some special skill set that allows me to be a successful woman in a “man’s world,” but that mistakenly focuses on my gender instead of my abilities. I really look at myself as having developed the skills to succeed now and in the future where science and math abilities, combined with good old-fashioned drive and ingenuity, are critical to any person’s success.
I’m an innate optimist, and what I think has changed most definitely for the positive is the attitude and assumptions of girls today. While there is certainly no shortage of vacuous pop culture in these first decades of 21st Century, the options for girls and women continue to expand. There are more women leaders serving as public role models, and this is a very good thing for girls today and for the nation overall.
Have you heard a story like this before: My daughter used to enjoy math and science when she was in elementary school. She’s always been strong in those subjects. But now that she’s going into 7th grade, it’s no longer “cool.” She’s actually afraid that her classmates won’t like her anymore if they find out how talented she is. Her computer science teacher called to tell me that she doesn’t want to take the honors programming class next year, even though she was the top student in his class last year. How do I make her understand that she should pursue her natural talents regardless of what her so-called friends think?
There is no easy or single answer to this difficult parenting problem. The factors that motivate a child are often as unique as that child. But in our experience at IMACS, one factor seems to be pretty consistent across the board: In this age range, parental influence starts to wane, sometimes rapidly, and outside parties such as friends and teachers gain in influential power. If you don’t have buy-in from a tween or teenager on a particular idea that involves her, then you’re probably not going to get anywhere. In fact, there’s a good chance that the reaction you get is the exact opposite of the one you want. Such is the process of growing up. It just seems more painful to now find yourself on the parental side of this equation.
There are two broad pieces of advice that we can offer based on the anecdotal evidence we see and hear with our female students. One is to get your daughter involved in one of the growing number of programs that promote science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). The earlier you get girls excited about STEM, the better. Studies have shown that if girls are not interested by middle school, it’s almost impossible to get them to pursue any of these fields in college or as a career. Getting your daughter involved in math and science enrichment during elementary school is a great first step. Whatever the age, look for a program with a healthy proportion of female participants, or even a girls-only program if available in your area. When a girl is surrounded by other girls who are also interested in these subjects, then being a “math and science girl” doesn’t seem so “out there,” and the stereotype that STEM is for boys is less likely to be reinforced. Your daughter might also feel more confident and willing to take more risks in learning if she’s not surrounded by boys.
The other piece of advice is to find a trusted adult female who works in a STEM field to mentor your daughter. It’s important for girls to have STEM-minded peers, but they also need successful female role models to look to and learn from. We mean no disrespect to the many excellent male mentors out there, but there is no doubting the power of “seeing is believing” when it comes to convincing girls that they can have a successful future in STEM. And while it’s inspiring to read interviews with Google’s Marissa Mayer or actress Danica McKellar, building a positive one-to-one mentoring relationship with an accessible adult has much more impact. Your daughter can receive regular guidance that address the specifics of her situation (e.g., career options, scholarship applications, college admissions). Plus, it will be coming from an adult other than Mom or Dad who, at this stage of adolescence, have zero credibility.
Below, we’ve compiled a non-exhaustive list of organizations, programs and resources for encouraging and motivating talented young girls to get and stay engaged with STEM. Many have organized mentor matching services. If your daughter is approaching high school, we’ve also included two organizations that focus exclusively on high school girls. We encourage you to explore these links and to inquire further in your local communities for similar opportunities. Your daughters are counting on you, whether they know it or not.
Organizations that Encourage and Support Young Girls in STEM
National Girls Collaborative Project (NGCP) – The NGCP brings together US organizations that focus on motivating girls to pursue careers in STEM fields. The program directory currently lists over 2,000 organizations and programs by geographic location. Select “Mentoring” in the “Resources Needed” list to find programs that offer mentoring services. The NGCP Web site also has an extensive list of resources, including the NGCP newsletter and links to dozens of girl-serving organizations and Web sites.
Girls’ Electronic Mentoring in Science, Engineering and Technology (GEM-SET) – GEM-SET is part of the Women in Science & Engineering program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The goal of GEM-SET is to connect young girls in middle school and high school with professional women mentors in the STEM fields. Girls must be affiliated with a partner organization.
Inspiring Girls Now In Technology Evolution (IGNITE) – IGNITE originated in the Seattle school district and has grown to include chapters around the country. The organization connects middle and high school girls with professional in STEM careers who act as role models and mentors. Programs also include job shadowing, field trips, career fairs, guidance for internship, scholarship and college admission applications.
Girls, Math & Science Partnership (GMSP) – The Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh sponsors this program for 11-17 year old girls. The main BrainCake Web site is designed to be totally cool, fun and interactive – so very now. Girls can also fill out a simple survey to be matched with a mentor.
Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) – The AWM Mentor Network matches mentors with girls and women who are interested in mathematics or are pursuing careers in mathematics. Grade school and high school girls can apply. Mentors may be women or men, but students have the option of indicating a strong preference for a female mentor on the application.
Aspire – Aspire is the K-12 outreach program sponsored by Society of Women Engineers (SWE). The organization’s signature event is WOW! That’s Engineering where local SWE chapters bring girls and women engineers together to learn about and do engineering. You can contact your regional SWE section to find out if they will be hosting a WOW! That’s Engineering fair in your area.
Sally Ride Science – This organization was established by America’s first woman in space to support girls’ and boys’ interest in math and science, and to make a difference in society’s perceptions of girls’ roles in technical fields. Sally Ride Science sponsors one-day science festivals for 5th – 8th grade girls. Girls entering 4th – 9th grades may participate in hands-on science camps that provide an opportunity to explore science, technology, and engineering on the campus of some of the most prestigious universities. Locations for the summer 2011 included Stanford, Berkeley, UCSD, MIT and Caltech. The parent handbook includes very helpful information and advice on raising talented girls.
My Gifted Girl – My Gifted Girl is a community for gifted girls and women in all subjects, including STEM fields. They serve as a resource for parents, educators, mentors and other organizations that support talented girls and women. Free membership gives you access to My Gifted Girl message boards where mentors can answer posted questions and contribute in specific subject matter areas.
Looking Ahead to High School
National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) – The NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing recognizes high school girls for their computing-related achievements and interests. Winners are chosen for their computing and IT aptitude, leadership ability, academic history, and plans for post-secondary education. Just reading the profiles of past winners is an inspiring experience. They demonstrate that you will find talented girls from a variety of backgrounds and experiences no matter where you look across the country.
Digigirlz – Digigirlz is Microsoft’s program to give high school girls the opportunity to learn about careers in technology. The company hosts Digigirlz Days where students get to interact with Microsoft employees and see what it’s like to work there. They also sponsor multi-day High Tech Camp for girls at no cost.
This week, IMACS catches up with an old friend, Mark Engelberg. Mark was part of the inaugural class of Project MEGSSS students in Broward County, Florida, when that program began in 1983. MEGSSS (Mathematics Education for Gifted Secondary School Students) was an ambitious public school course of study with a curriculum designed specifically for the brightest math students. The Broward program became IMACS in 1993. Like many of his fellow MEGSSS/IMACS alumni, Mark went on to an accomplished career in a STEM-related field. He is known for having designed the bestselling logic game, Chocolate Fix, as well as adding thousands of new challenges to the popular Rush Hour game.
How did Chocolate Fix evolve from an idea to a bestselling game to the basis for a new logic curriculum?
Chocolate Fix started out as a product called Gridworks. Gridworks was my first collaboration with ThinkFun, and its creation was very much a team effort. Bill Ritchie, the CEO of ThinkFun, had the initial inspiration to build a visual logic puzzle system. I proposed the pattern-matching framework for the clues and made the case that such a system would be simple, elegant, and expressive. Two very brilliant and prolific puzzle designers, Serhiy Grabarchuk Jr. and Scott Kim, ran with the idea and came up with the initial book of 60 puzzles. And of course, ThinkFun’s excellent artists and graphic designers came up with the product’s look and feel. It was a real thrill to work with so many talented individuals.
The funny thing, looking back, is that at the time, we weren’t entirely certain whether such a clue system would be rich enough to create challenging and interesting puzzles. Yet nearly a decade later, we haven’t even come close to exhausting Chocolate Fix’s potential; we’re constantly discovering clever new types of puzzles that can be expressed within the system.
Meanwhile, Chocolate Fix received the Parents’ Choice Gold Award in 2008, and in 2010, the Bunge Lab at UC Berkeley published a study that named Chocolate Fix as one of a handful of puzzle games that were shown to increase IQ. We know of at least one geometry teacher who has successfully used Chocolate Fix to teach his students the skill of constructing mathematical proofs. This is all exciting stuff, and it looks like Chocolate Fix has a bright future. Right now, we’re looking at ways to combine all the things we’ve learned about Chocolate Fix and turn it into an actual curriculum for teaching logic, problem solving, and mathematical proof skills.
You were also instrumental in using technology to develop thousands of new challenges for the Rush Hour app when the initial thought was that all the “good” challenges were gone. What are your thoughts on how technology continues to affect how we play games?
Technology touches every facet of our lives, and games are no exception. Computer games, for example, now form one of the largest segments of the entertainment industry. Even when it comes to non-electronic games and puzzles, computers play an important role behind the scenes. Nearly every crossword puzzle and sudoku are created these days with the assistance of computers. Artificial intelligence programs continue to shed new light on strategies for the world’s deepest games, including Chess, Go, and Poker. So to me, it seemed perfectly natural to apply my programming skills to the task of creating fresh new Rush Hour challenges.
You are the inventor of two other games – Animalogic and Snorkels. Tell us about them.
Animalogic received the Parents’ Choice Gold Award in 2009. Like Chocolate Fix, it is a solitaire puzzle system that comes with a book of challenges. The premise is that you have to successfully get 16 colored animals across a river, but the animals will only line up behind other animals that match in type or color. It’s a nice spatial, attribute-matching puzzle system with simple rules that even the youngest of kids can understand, but the puzzle book has a full range of difficulty levels, including expert challenges that will give adults a mental workout.
Snorkels is a two-player strategy game where each player controls a team of cute, colorful aliens with the goal of being the first to capture one of your opponent’s aliens. The capturing mechanism in Snorkels comes directly from the ancient Asian strategy game Go, which is widely regarded as the deepest strategy game ever devised (even deeper than Chess!). In fact, I created Snorkels primarily to be a “gateway game” to Go, which happens to be my favorite game. Snorkels is satisfying in its own right, but once you master Snorkels, you’ll find it a snap to learn and enjoy Go.
You recently said that the MEGSSS program, which is now part of the IMACS curriculum, gave you the logical thinking skills that enabled you to develop Chocolate Fix. Can you elaborate on that?
When creating the clue system for Chocolate Fix, I was heavily inspired by my experience with Book 1 of the Elements of Mathematics series, “Introductory Logic.” [Editor’s note: This material now forms the Logic for Mathematics I (LM1) curriculum at IMACS.] In a strong sense, each proof challenge in EM Book 1 is a kind of puzzle, and I wanted to capture that kind of thinking in Chocolate Fix. The partial grid clues are a form of disjunction, and the ability to put multiple constraints within one pattern are a kind of conjunction. (Gridworks also featured negative clues. We removed them from Chocolate Fix to simplify the system, but we hope to bring them back as part of the curriculum we’re developing.) When solving a challenging Chocolate Fix puzzle, you can expect to use Inference by Cases, Indirect Inference, and other techniques now taught in the LM1 course at IMACS.
Describe your career path from when you graduated from MEGSSS to your current work in puzzles and games and curriculum development. Who or what experiences influenced you along the way?
After MEGSSS, I went to Rice University, where I double-majored in Computer Science and Cognitive Sciences. From there, I programmed virtual reality simulations at NASA, and then got into the computer game industry, working at Sierra On-line and Rad Game Tools. These days, I’m primarily a stay-at-home dad, but I continue to dabble in puzzles and games when I have spare time.
With respect to puzzles and games, my biggest influence is my own childhood. I logged a lot of hours playing computer adventure games, solving puzzles in GAMES Magazine, and playing boardgames with friends. I was fortunate in college to find a group of friends with similar interests, and I ended up learning a lot about puzzle construction through our many conversations and brainstorming sessions about what worked and what didn’t. I try to create the kinds of things I would have enjoyed when I was in middle school.
If someone reading this thinks he or she has the next brilliant idea for a game or puzzle, what should he or she do next?
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