In Praise of Dangerous Toys

A few years ago, when I lived in Minnesota, my friend and I split our time between two activities: building robots and building rockets. We built our robots of Legos and our rockets of cardboard and balsa wood. When we weren’t occupied with one of those endeavors we spent our evenings racing his go-cart around the empty parking lot across from his house, our afternoons building zip lines in his backyard instead of doing the work we were supposed to, and our mornings being homeschooled by our moms. Outside of that relatively small allocation to formalized learning, we were allowed to pursue whatever interested us.

Fast forward five years to today and I’ve started packing a duffel bag for my next trip back to Minnesota. This will be the latest in a slew of trips I have made since moving away from Minnesota nearly six years ago, each and every once of which had something to do with robotics. January fourth will find me on a plane bound first for Atlanta, Georgia, and then back across the nation to Minnesota for the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) build season where I will spend two months working alongside a team of twenty-something other high school students to design, build, and program a robot to compete in a challenge that has yet to be released. Unlike my younger years in robotics when I participated in FIRST Lego League we won’t build with NXTs, beams, and brick separators though, but instead using steel, a drill press, and a 3D printer to name just three of the myriad tools we will use throughout the season. The materials have changed and I have grown, but at the heart of this experience is the desire all those rockets and long afternoons spent programming at the community center instilled within me: that insatiable desire to be a geek — to open my computer and spend some time programming so that I can watch the robot execute my commands with inhuman precision, and still fail; to sketch a diagram on a whiteboard, build and tweak it digitally with CAD, and have a 3D printer print any parts I can’t walk across the machine shop to build. And that’s all thanks to the way I was brought up, thanks to the things I was allowed to do; it’s thanks to all the things I wasn’t told I couldn’t do that I’m going to step on to a plane in a week and leave my home for two months to transform a pile of metal and a few thousand lines of code into a functioning robot. It’s thanks to all those things that I’m going to do that and absolutely love it.

Unfortunately, as time marches on fewer and fewer of those things are okay to do. We launched rockets out of potato cannon tubes when we ran out of potatoes just to see what would happen. Sure, we can and will probably do that again in the coming weeks, but how much longer will that be okay? John Biggs, the author of the article that brought me to this rant In Praise of Dangerous Toys, played with potassium nitrate, sulphur, and charcoal when he was a kid; today everything in a science kit has to be edible. I didn’t play with potassium nitrate when I was growing up, but some of the substances were not too distant cousins of the concoction John made in his basement while his dad read the paper. And we all turned out okay: John’s generation grew up to produce some of the greatest minds of the century, and I’m about to spend two months having the time of my life doing what I love, doing what I’ve been brought up to do.