How my first ever robotics project set me up for teamwork in STEM

You always remember your first project. This is a recap of how mine came to be and what I learned as a result.

Back in the summer of 2016, when I was a rising junior in high school getting ready to start the IB Diploma Program, I was given the opportunity to participate in the Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Program at the InterActiveCorporation in NYC. That program changed my life to say the least. I have always told friends and family that I am a student at Cornell Engineering because I believe in myself, and I believe in myself because of the skills, lessons and friendships I gained in this program.


Towards the end of the summer, we were tasked with forming groups and coming up with a group tech project to create positive social change based on the coding languages and platforms that we had learned to use over summer. I formed a group with six other girls and we decided to build a robotic prosthetic hand for amputees.


To view the product, as well as the proposal and technical design of the Mano816, please check out its project page. In this particular post, I will be focusing more on the process behind the development of the hand, as well as the most valuable lessons I learned in working on this project that I will take with me in my professional development.


Lesson 1: A teamwork makes the dream work.

Throughout high school, I felt like I was competing with everyone else. No matter how big, small, significant or utterly pointless the stakes were, I felt a pressure to measure up, and try to be better than the rest because of how impressive everyone's resumes and backgrounds seemed. I inherently distrusted others around me when it came to work together, because I would think at the back of my mind that the people that I was working with were out to take me down. Because of these fears that I had of being double-crossed, I would often elect to work alone whenever possible. All of this is to say that the prospect of having to work in a group made me nervous.

BUT I will say this: I am so grateful that my Instructor encouraged me to experience this discomfort and get through it, because working in teams is not only essential to STEM, it's vital.

The major challenges I remember having in working with a new group were (1) balancing our different work habits, and (2) making sure that everyone had a part to play that others were not infringing on.


Personally, I was always someone who felt the need to overcompensate and be overly productive, but I never really spoke up about what I was doing or how I was feeling. This combination hindered me from connecting more with my teammates once we got the ball rolling with developing our product. For a period of time, all I could focus on was getting our code to work, and my perspective on the "perfect solution." While this might have helped in some senses, I definitely needed to step back a bit and create a little more space for others without completely disengaging, which I pushed myself to do more and be conscious of once we talked about it as a group. In return, I learned to voice when I disagreed with an aspect of what the group or an individual wanted to do in a respectful, but direct and constructive way.


I believe that as we developed a better rapport as a group and I personally developed more in my teamwork skills, we were able to make great progress with our project and come up with a really cool end prototype.


Lesson 2: There will be setbacks. And thats okay.

This lesson hit the hardest for me. The best way that I can explain how I learned this lesson and what it means to me is through a flashback story.


We had been working all day on a vital part of our project, arguably the most important part: connecting the sensor movements to the hand movements using a Raspberry Pi. This means we had to convert C++ code with embedded Arduino output from the sensors to Python so that the Raspberry Pi could interpret the instructions over a WiFi connection and then send movement instructions to the hand by translating the instruction back into C++/Arduino suite code. We were all tired and frustrated, working overtime to make our project work. We finally got it at the end of the day! But then a partner forgot to save the solution, and our Raspberry Pi restarted so we had to rewrite the Python code again. We thought it was the end of the world! And yet, we ended up memorizing the code more or less through redoing it, and we even optimized it as we rewrote the code up!


The moral of the story: Breathe. Everything will work out the way that it was meant to, if not better.


Lesson 3: Believe in what you can accomplish, and be proud of it.

This was also a difficult lesson to embrace, but an important one nonetheless.


When we decided to do this project, we had decided to touch base with a guest speaker that we had had earlier in the summer from the medical robotics field to ask for her advice in going about this project. She emailed us back to let us know that we "didn't have the skills or the experience to do such a project" and that we would be better served make a light blink. Hearing that at first was very disheartening for my group, and we began to doubt ourselves. But then, our instructor was not only there to be our #1 supporter, but he also empowered us to believe in our own ability to prove that guest speaker wrong. He was very frank with us in saying that it wouldn't be easy and that we needed to do our research and have a plan, but he told us that it wasn't an impossibility, it was a challenge. As I have learned, those are two very different things.


And from the final product we got, I'd say that we did the impossible :).


All in all, I couldn't have asked for a more fulfilling first robotics project, or a better team to experience my first project with. Here's to building up from here!


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© 2020 by Michelle Dominique Davies.