I just returned from taking our students on a nine-day robotics mini-mester in Israel. Thirteen of our students joined 12 Israeli high school students and spent part of the time at the Technion building a robot that models snake locomotion and part of their time at the Ben Gurion University-Eilat campus building a robot that was designed to prepare our students to enter the First Robotics Competition this January.
See photos and students’ reflections at http://tanenbaumchatroboticsisraeltrip.weebly.com/pictures.html.
The program was a valuable learning experience for many reasons. First, our students learned how to design, construct, and program autonomous robots. Second, they worked with Israeli teens their age who shared a common interest and now have friends who can be a resource their future academic and professional pursuits. Third, they learned a range of “soft” skills like collaboration, problem-solving, and risk-taking that will benefit them throughout life.
On this third point, students learned that in the robotics lab, failure is part of the learning process. As opposed to school where cost of failure is high (low marks, impaired chance of getting into university), failure and mistakes play an important role in robotics. They motivate the “engineer” to improve the design. They often drive innovation.
One of the professors at the Technion said it this way: “The outcomes in robotics competitions are not winning or losing, but winning or learning.” Danny Chai, our robotics funder and an engineer himself, reinforced this message in an email to me writing: “Learning from failure is the key to success. It’s like Henry Ford once remarked, ‘Failure is only the opportunity to begin again, only this time more wisely.’”
This week’s parasha makes a similar point. Just after Yaacov makes peace with his brother Esau and thinks life is going to be calmer, trouble starts up again. Joseph is sold into slavery.
The midrash says that Satan felt Yaacov didn’t deserve a life of tranquility. To annoy him, Satan stirred up trouble between Joseph and his brothers. Rashi quotes this midrash but makes a subtle change in the language. He says it wasn’t Satan but God who was behind the scenes in the Joseph story, not as a way to irk Yaacov, but as a means to challenge him and foster growth.
In this small editorial emendation, Rashi conveys an important message. When we encounter some type of failure or setback, we can look at it as the work of Satan. We can view it as an obstacle that is meant merely to annoy us. Or, we can look at it as an opportunity to learn. We can see it as a challenge that is meant to promote growth.
It’s this latter way of thinking that was one of the most enduring lessons of our mini-mester in Israel; for it applies not just to robotics, but to life in general.