By Nathaniel Reade
Photographs by Brent M. Hale
It’s Friday morning of Parents Weekend in room 205 of the Koch Center, and Simon Moushabeck is feeling nervous. A smiling senior with curly dark hair and the stylish dress of a jazz musician, he and his teammate are about to demonstrate the robot they’ve built before an audience that includes their teacher, their fellow students, and a passel of fathers, mothers, and siblings. This robot is supposed to follow a course of black tape that twists and turns over a white board like an indecisive river. Instead, it has shown an unpleasant tendency to misbehave. During most of Tuesday’s class, for instance, it would only go backwards.
Simon is one of 13 students in a class called Physics Projects that is taught by the chair of the Science Department, Ben Bakker, a modest man with a white goatee. This was the second robot they’d built in the class. Photovoltaic cells at the front sense light and dark, and send information to a programmable, open-source microprocessor called an Arduino Board. Simon and his classmates had to pass AP Physics to get into this class, but the majority of them aren’t science or computer experts. Most of them had never programmed a computer before or written a line of code.
Bakker knew that Simon and many of his classmates were nervous about programming for the first time. He knew they were probably thinking, “This is too much for me.” He could have taught them programming, but he actually tries to create situations that make them nervous. He showed them some websites and said, “It’s pretty easy. Go learn it yourself.”
He also gave them crucial advice. “Sometimes you will hate your robot and want to throw it out the window,” he said. “Don’t do that. Stick with it.” Then, even when many of his students’ robots were twirling in endless circles, going backwards, or failing to move at all, he’d say, “You don’t need me here,” and walk out the door. Bakker isn’t lazy, and he doesn’t want to see his students fail. He does this because, he says, “This class isn’t really about robots.” Instead he’s trying to teach them much bigger lessons about work, life, and themselves. And he knows that sometimes the best learning, like the best robot, has to follow a crooked line.
Ben Bakker’s methods may seem unorthodox, but they represent an approach to teaching that experts consider to be far more suited to the world we now live in. As Deerfield’s Academic Dean Peter Warsaw explains, in the past education mostly consisted of transferring information: facts and formulas.
Bakker cites Carl Wieman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who noticed that too many of his smart, highly-educated graduate students, when they got into his lab, sat there and waited for somebody to tell them what to do. The trouble with that, Bakker says, is that “nobody knows what the next great question or problem is going to be.”
So Deerfield’s Science Department decided a few years ago to reexamine the very core of what it was doing. Bakker asked his teachers a question: “What were you doing when you first fell in love with science?” Biologists, chemists, and physicists all had a similar answer: They hadn’t been sitting in a classroom listening to a lecture; they had been dissecting, investigating, testing a hypothesis, solving a problem.
How, Bakker asked next, could they create this same love of science in their students? The result was a major restructuring of the science curriculum around the principle of inquiry. They replaced freshman biology, for instance, with a physics course heavy on investigations and light on formulas, which helped to bring more students who might have entered Deerfield with poor math instruction into the sciences. (Students now typically take biology their junior year.) And they created senior-level courses such as Physics Projects.
Bakker deliberately made Physics Projects a series of struggles for his students. “I’m not after them getting the answer,” he says. ”I want them to learn what to do when they get stuck, and find ways of getting unstuck.” That’s why, when Simon’s robot would only go backwards, Bakker left him alone. “If Simon is stuck,” he says, “he should solve that, not me.”
Over at another table in the clean, bright light of room 205 that Tuesday before Parents Weekend, Simon’s friend Miles Steele and his team were having a much easier time of it. Miles is an acknowledged computer expert with the pattern-on-pattern dress of a guy who has loftier concerns than fashion. His first robot, which he built with a different team, had been “kind of shaky,” he says. “The wheels kept slipping, the balance was all wrong, and the third wheel was a spoon with a Band-aid on it.” It never worked. By Tuesday’s class, however, Miles’ new robot worked so flawlessly that his team had started to work on the next assignment.
What had changed?
The collaboration. One of Miles’ new team-members, Jake, had seen Miles’ earlier effort, so on this one he refused to let him use tape. Whereas Miles admits he has an impatience to stick things together quickly and see if they work, Jake insisted that they be more methodical. “Jake really solved a problem I have,” Miles said. “He likes to use real materials like metal and screws so it actually holds together, which is really important.”
Failure, in other words, had taught Miles life lessons he couldn’t have gotten from a textbook or a lecture hall: the danger of his own impatience, and the value of co-workers who challenge him. This is also part of Bakker’s plan. He puts his students in teams, then changes them for each project. As Dean Warsaw explains, “in the world we live in now, the solitary genius has been replaced by teams of people working together, sometimes across the world.”
In Physics Projects, this collaboration also creates cross-pollination of disciplines and talents. Some know about nuts and bolts. Some use their artistic skills to make their robots beautiful. Others write elegant code. Others create artistically edited Youtube videos about their projects, or excel at the oral presentations Bakker requires. “They’re all working in twos or threes,” Bakker says, “so they either have to teach each other or learn from each other.”
The program Simon and Rhys wrote for their robot was fairly simple, they thought: If the left photo-sensor on the front of their robot received a high number, representing lots of light from the course, it would make one wheel turn. If the other sensor saw a lot of light, it would make the other wheel turn. Why, then, would the robot make weird circles, or go backwards, or sometimes when they tried it on the course in the back of the class, veer off towards the abyss? They began to look more closely at their servos.
These robots didn’t have simple DC motors turning their tires. They had servos, which are more like a DC motor attached to a processor, or what Miles Steele calls a “small, stubborn brain.” Miles is the son of a software engineer, so he had already studied the program running his servos and found a way to make them behave.
Simon and Rhys, however, hadn’t been so lucky. There aren’t left and right servos, so to make their robot symmetrical they had had to mount one servo facing in the opposite direction. This meant that when they told it to run forward, it was actually making the robot turn in circles or go backwards.
When students get truly frustrated Bakker sits down with them, not to teach them the answers but to model the right thinking process: “Let’s go back to square one,” he’ll say, and get them to methodically check each step. Once they’ve got their methods straightened out, he’ll step away and let them find their own answers. He noticed that Simon and Rhys were still fiddling, so he let them be.
Bakker says he’s a fairly simple guy, with a fairly simple approach to physics: “The times I learned the most were when someone said to me, ‘Go figure it out yourself.’ Then, when you do solve it, there’s this sense of ‘I can do anything.’”
Social scientists and educators agree, and have identified a key quality of those who are more likely to achieve their goals: They call it grit, persistence, or tolerance for setbacks. “When you’re problem solving,” Dean Warsaw agrees, “you have to grapple. And we know that grappling is good for students. Bakker’s approach, Warsaw says, “gives students a tremendous sense of confidence with hard problems.”
By Thursday’s class—one day away from the final demonstration—Simon and Rhys had recognized the servo problem and realized they needed to flip something. The question was, what? Using a laptop connected to the processor on the robot, they’d change their computer code to send the left photo-sensor’s information to the right wheel, say, or tell the left wheel to run backwards. Then they’d take it over to the course—white boards on stools with the squiggling line of tape on it—and see if it worked.
Eventually they got their robot to go forward. Then it struggled to follow the crooked line, missing the first hard turn and heading across the white towards the edge.
Miles saw this and asked Simon if he’d added something called “a delay” in his program. Simon and his teammate Rhys said that they hadn’t. Miles explained how to do it. Simon and Rhys went back to their table, wired their laptop to the robot, rewrote their code, and tried it again. Their robot’s performance greatly improved. Collaboration.
It’s hard to tell when Ben Bakker’s class begins and when it ends because his students start working before he arrives and keep on working long after he’s gone. Some left when class ended on Thursday, but just as many stayed behind and kept improving their robots, even if they already worked perfectly. One team decided to add spinning rotors to the back of theirs, just because it looked cool. Miles had decided to add a speaker to his robot and program it to play “Pop Goes the Weasel.” This meant he had to translate musical notes into computer code.
Why? Extra credit, maybe?
“No reason,” Miles said. “It’s just fun.”
Simon could have been working on his robot, which still didn’t reliably follow the line, but instead, because he’s a musician, he stopped to help Miles write the notes to “Pop Goes the Weasel” on the white board. Again, why? “A lot of classes work around ‘I gotta do this because I want that grade,’” Simon said. “This class works around ‘I wanna do this because it’s fun.’ That was really fun, so I did that.”
This is what happens when students have done enough grappling, Warsaw says. Rather than fear challenges, they embrace them. Says Warsaw, “Learning itself becomes the greatest game.”
On Friday before class, as room 205 fills up with students and family members, Simon takes his robot over to the course to test it, trying to hide it from the others because if it doesn’t work he’ll be embarrassed. He places it at the start of the course and turns it on. It seems to work, so he stops.
Bakker starts by explaining to parents what they’re doing in the class. “In the real world,” Bakker says, “if you get stuck on a problem you can’t just go to a teacher. You need to search through resources and figure out how to resolve an issue and overcome it. I chose robotics, but it could be anything.”
The second team turns on their robot and it spins in circles like a puppy chasing its tail.
Colin, the more outspoken member of that team, says, “We might need a restart.”
They start the robot again, but still it circles. Colin says, “We’ll be right back.”
The third team’s robot finishes the course without incident. More applause. Same with the fourth team, which added twirling helicopter blades on the back of theirs.
Colin and his teammate return. Their robot is slow, but it finishes. Ben Bakker says, “Nice!”
Miles’ team’s robot runs the course flawlessly; thanks to the work he did on their servo software, it’s remarkably smooth.
Now Simon and Rhys bring their robot to the starting line. They turn it on, let go, and it follows the start of the line. Then, at the first sharp turn, it veers off into the white. Everyone groans.
Simon reaches out to grab the robot—he doesn’t want it to drive itself over the edge of the board and crash on the floor. Rhys tells him to stop and blocks his hand; he has noticed that the robot is turning back towards the line. It rediscovers the black, latches on to it, and finishes the course. Everyone cheers. Simon looks relieved.
Afterwards, Simon ticks off the things he’s learned from this project. He says that whereas before he feared programming and assumed it was something he’d never be able to do, now he knows he can figure it out. He realizes that he and Rhys were right to keep persisting, even when they wanted to throw their robot out the window. They were right to take Miles’ suggestions. They discovered the value of methodically “fiddling and fixing.”
Oh, and there’s one more thing: “Robots are awesome.”••
Nathaniel Reade has written for dozens of national magazines, including GQ, Men’s Journal, Yankee, and SKI. He says his favorite class at Brown University was “Inner Asian History,” taught by [former headmaster] Eric Widmer. This is his first story for Deerfield Magazine.