An Interview with Paul Chayka
The Robotics And Beyond HQ in New Milford, Connecticut is in an 1873 Victorian brick building with the back end refurbished in glass and steel. On the second floor is their long room with a work table to one side and computer equipment neatly organized along the walls with robots here, circuit boards there, computers in another spot. Paul Chayka, one of the founders, greets me as I walk in and then introduces me to one of the mentors, a high school student who started as an after school participant, loved the work, and graduated to mentoring other kids. We talked while waiting for kids to arrive on a bus after school.
Robotics And Beyond is a program with a mission to help young people thrive in the technological world they encounter, discover their talents, think and communicate effectively, create passionately, enjoy their accomplishments, pursue fulfilling careers, give back to their communities, and become models for future generations.
Tim Slavin: What are some of the best ways you’ve found to stimulate thinking, problem solving, and experimentation?
Paul Chayka: The most important aspect is that the students have an interest in the project or subject at hand, whether that is a personal interest or whether an instructor has created a project that grabs the student’s interest.
When the student is curious about making something work or seeing a desired result, then they are naturally able to focus, think, try things and not get easily frustrated when attempts don’t work out. A poster in our room states “Failure is part of life. Get used to it. Get over it. Have fun. Succeed!”
Projects or lessons do benefit a lot by having some early opportunities for success built in. I always tell parents how important this cycle is for children to go through “try something, it didn’t work, why not, what can I try now, try it, see what happens, think about why that result happened, try again or move on to the next small goal and work toward a larger accomplishment. Once they are comfortable with that process, they have one of the most essential of all life skills.
Tim Slavin: How does peer mentoring work? Does each person have a peer mentor?
Paul Chayka: The peer mentoring system that we have developed is perhaps the single most important achievement and discovery in our 12 years, along with success with special needs students. Mentoring for specific projects like a personal computer build is one-on-one over a number of weeks by specific appointments or during a more general class, as well as on-line as needed.
Our ratio of peer mentors to students is typically 1:2 or 1-3 in a given class or summer camp overall, but a lot of 1:1 occurs just out of circumstances. Often, a class will have one primary student-instructor and one or more mentors who assist the instructor. When a lot of activities are going on at once, mentors help in whatever topics they have knowledge in. Mentors can be as young as 8 or 9 depending on their knowledge level and interest and ability to help others. Most are between 7th and 12th grades. Mentors are often younger by a few years than the students they are helping. It makes no difference to the mentor or student because what matters is the level of knowledge available and the need for that help.
Tim Slavin: How do you find mentors?
Paul Chayka: Peer mentor candidates make themselves known pretty early and easily due to their enthusiasm, level of knowledge, interest in sharing their knowledge and ability to put the student first. Since our first mentor in 2004, a girl who had been involved with a LEGO robotics club, students have respected these mentors and many have aspired to become a mentor themselves.
Over 12 years, we have provided over 6000 hours of mentoring experience for students in grades 4-12 and college students. We have seen tremendous growth in students who have been offered and risen to the responsibility of being a mentor. Parents often tell us what a transformation this role has been for their child in terms of confidence, social skills, knowledge level and academic aspirations. Mentors often tell me that their role as a student and mentor with Robotics And Beyond has been the most important factor in their success and the part of their resume that interviewers for college or jobs want to hear about.
I am also told that the ability to field questions that come in totally unexpected ways and words, from many different students, often in very distracting situations, has enabled them to interpret and think very quickly and respond with answers that make sense. This has been extremely valuable in interviews and on-the-job in industry or when giving presentations during college.
Tim Slavin: How has the Girls-Only Coding Night program worked out?
Paul Chayka: A week of summer camp for girls only, in 2009 with 12 students, showed us that this approach could be effective in attracting girls to what had typically been a male program. Attempting it a year later and seeing only 3 girls sign up showed us that good attendance requires a critical mass of parental involvement and networking. All our camps since then have been co-ed, with planning made for girls to be able to work together, have some girl-mentors and adding more design-related topics.
In 2013 we saw almost no registrations for girls in any of our coding classes, and heard from parents that their girls felt uncomfortable knowing they could be the only girl among adolescent boys. We decided to hold girls-only coding events once a month and include as many women as mentors or instructors as possible. We also included women to just be present and give a short description of their early interests, education and career paths. I know that young people desperately need perspective in order to even begin to try to visualize their future in any given interest or path.
Attendance in these three Girls-Only Coding events so far has been good, averaging 8 girls each time and coming from 5 or 6 towns in all. The comfort level they exhibit with no boys as fellow students is obvious. It is wonderful to look at a 12 foot table and floor space filled by girls testing their programs on robots or on their computer stations, and to see them asking questions and getting help from women.
One night the daughter of our male instructor for Python Skyped in from her job as a test engineer on a navy jet engine program, to meet the girls and describe her education and career. We do use adult male and sometimes a high school boy as an instructor or mentor but the environment is clearly female-dominated in numbers and personality.
Obviously many girls and boys have no interest in learning anything about technology or programming and would never think of attending this event. The girls who do come are very eager to learn and try new things and learn about technology. I believe that most would not have come if not for the attraction of the combination of “coding” and “girls only.” Knowing that boys will be “out of the way” is important for many girls. Once having been in our classroom space, several of the girls have attended other workshops allowing both boys and girls.
Tim Slavin: Do girls have different interests and needs for learning about technology?
Paul Chayka: Girls do seem to have an interest in technology that veers a bit more toward the design aspects as opposed to a mechanical outcome but many girls are fascinated by being able to control a robot and think of very creative things to try to make the robot do, often creating a story with the robot as a participant.
Tim Slavin: Not every person wants to become a programmer once they try it. What do you see as the primary value of learning to program, at least a little, and learn about technology?
Paul Chayka: After many hard-learned lessons with various languages, student ages and abilities, we have learned a lot about this. One of the most important things for parents and teachers and administrators to understand is that not all of our young people need to gain skills in programming.
Many students will find programming interesting to a point and understand the concepts but have no interest in pursuing it. Many will have no interest or ability with it at all. Others will enjoy coding, find a talent and pursue it as part or all of a career. However, I believe that is it important that all young people at least have some awareness of the logic and fundamental concepts used in programming because devices that they use daily, and processes that they must go through in everyday life, are built upon systems that involve software and require use of a programmed interface such as a cell phone, tablet, home wireless phone, microwave oven, thermostat, car communication system, tax return software, or even many children’s toys.
Our programs stretch far from being focused on coding and coding forms a small part of our topics. Hands-on skills and projects form a large portion of our activities, although students do recognize how programming fits into them, if and when it does.
Tim Slavin: What are the 1-3 things you think all kids should know about technology?
Paul Chayka: Kids have been born into a world and culture where electronics are crucial to nearly every aspect of life. It is to their own future benefit to understand enough of technologies that touch their life such that you can make informed decisions about personal and public issues, products, banking, safe internet practices, using consumer electronics, etc. You do not want to be at the mercy of the many people who will try to sell you ideas or products.
Kids also need to feel comfortable and confident in using the internet to find answers to questions and be reasonably good at recognizing trustworthy information from wrong or misleading information. Their questions might involve electronic hardware and software and using it or product research or research on a school or job or any number of important aspects of life.
Kids also should realize their greatest asset will be their ability to work toward a solution to a problem or situation while moving past many instances of wrong decisions, dead ends and other problems. They will need to be able to ask for help from others they know and accept help when it is offered and needed.
Tim Slavin: What are some neat things your kids have gone on to do with their lives?
Paul Chayka: The best outcome for any of our students is when discover and develop their best talents, and they choose a higher education path that provides the training needed for jobs and careers that are financially and personally rewarding. Four year college paths and graduate school are necessary for many careers but a vast array of careers exist which are highly rewarding in terms of pay, take advantage of your personal interests and skills, and which require 2 years or less of formal education. Often a sequence of relationships and events turn out to benefit our students. Our mentors and students come from 50+ different towns in CT and NY, and they get to know each other very well over the years. This bridges a communication gap that is common among young people.
In one example, our first mentor, was with us for 9 years, from 7th grade through college. She developed very effective design projects, both using computers and purely hands-on, non-electronic and was the role model for future boy and girl mentors. Through talking with visitors to the camps from industry, she changed her college major from Graphic Design and Accounting to Economics. Her first job was as a Quality Control Inspector at a consumer products company. She credits her experiences with Robotics And Beyond with her obtaining that job and her success in being able to understand the technologies used and to communicate between manufacturing, quality control and sales departments.
As another example, two students from different towns and schools, both now 22, met as 7th graders our summer camp. They ended up in the same high school in 9th grade and became friends. One of these students was my younger son. Both were very active in electronics and computers and wanted to do more involved projects. My co-founder and I sponsored them as Interns in 10th grade. These projects involved well over a year of very challenging problem solving became part of our camp curriculum.
For both, the projects laid much of the foundation of knowledge and problem solving that helped them to succeed in college and obtain engineering-based summer jobs and Co-ops. One went to Northeastern University for Computer Science and Electrical Engineering. His first co-op was with a robotics company near Boston and that led to a second Co-op with another company, which led to him making it through the difficult process of obtaining a Co-op with Apple on a product team in California. He was very successful in that job and had a second Co-op with them. While there, he suggested his friend from Connecticut (my son, studying Electrical Engineering at a different school) as a candidate for a particular need and he also made it through the interview process and was offered a Co-op at Apple.
Another need arose and these now respected interns suggested yet another candidate from a third town in CT, who they met through Robotics And Beyond and who they felt was compatible with the environment within product engineering teams at Apple. This student, now at WPI, was also accepted for a Co-op.
All three former Mentors were highly successful in their Co-ops at Apple and at other companies. Between them, they were offered a total of 16 jobs one summer. All three have been offered and have accepted full time jobs at Apple, with one being on the job now for nine months. These former Mentors or Interns have become important advisors for what equipment and technologies and projects we bring to our students and have designed circuit board projects that we use in lessons. One of them is on our board of directors.
Tim Slavin: How did Robotics and Beyond get started?
Paul Chayka: The pilot camp in 2002 met my objectives and made me want to create a much larger camp but needed help. I learned that another adult in town ran a LEGO robotics club at our library. That was Mike Morrissey. We met and decided to plan a more in-depth, full day camp for 2004.
We named the camp Robotics And Beyond to convey that we would include offshoots from robotics to touch on other areas of technology. Mike was skilled in hardware and software and had great ideas for projects. We shared the conviction that our projects should have themes of real-world applications and include industrial technology in our programs so kids would just accept it as nothing unusual.
We ran the camp costs and revenues through my consulting company, sharing any “profits” which were typically a couple $100 each after several hundred hours of effort each. We continued the camps for 3 years in spaces we could find like a church activity room but found that air conditioning was essential due to the number of laptops and CRT desktops we used.
We badly needed more funding so in early 2007 we applied for and received 501(c)3 status and began to solicit donations. This began very slowly, with only a few $100 in the first year. My partner built our website and database system which enabled us to advertise our programs, allow on-line registration and payments.
In 2007 we also moved to the New Milford High School library which had 7000 sq. Feet and air conditioning but cost far more to lease. From 2004 to 2008 the camps ranged from only 7 to 16 students for one week. After some newspaper publicity, our 2009 camp attracted 34 students from 19 towns over 2 weeks including a girls-only week.
Through these years, we continued to add more and more equipment and projects to strengthen the “And Beyond” aspect of our name, adding graphic design, circuitboard electronics, other programming languages, computer hardware lessons, and others. We also added visits from industry professionals in various fields of engineering and science or design to talk about their early interests, careers and education paths. This is one of the most important aspects of what we offer and greatly valued by students and their parents.
In 2012, Mike and I felt there was enough potential demand for STEM and Design education that we decided to make this our full time jobs. We leased space at 30 Bridge St. In March 2012. I stopped my engineering consulting work completely. My wife had begun teaching high school physics in 1999 so we had a stable income and medical benefits. Mikes wife played a big part in getting some important projects started like Scouting merit badge workshops, advertising campaigns, open house events. She and Mike also developed a non-digital game to introduce programming concepts to K-3 students which was eventually trademarked and offered for sale.
An Open House event in town in March 2012 attracted over 450 visitors. Summer camp attendance was 100 with 20+ peer mentors and several adult volunteers over 6 co-ed weeks, from 30 towns in New York and Connecticut. We added a Junior STEM half day camp for K-3 with enrollment of 18.
Fall 2012 programs consisted of weekend workshops and a 16 week contract program for a home school network in another town. In the Fall we began an After School program at our space on 2 days each week for 12 weeks which was filled to capacity, 10 students on each of 2 days. By the end of 2012 it was clear that our efforts could not support even one income so Mike took a full time job back in web programming and database management and his wife also took a job. I continued to try and make R&B a practical occupation. The benefit to young people and their parents was too great to walk away from.
In 2013, a former mentor and then college student (and our first Intern at Apple) arranged for a server to be donated by the parent of a friend. He trained younger mentors to run it and we used it to provide Minecraft Game Nights 2 Fridays a month which were hugely popular and a small but regular source of revenue, and got more people aware of us. A volunteer with IBM career experience became a part-time staffer and took on our website and database management and many administrative tasks, gaining updated job skills in the process.
Last year, in 2014, we had 155 campers over 4 weeks with 30 peer mentors and 6 adult volunteers. Many camp mentors are paid a small stipend as they are preparing for college and are so essential to the camp. After school, weekend and out-of-school workshops continued. Revenue increased but payment for mentors, instructors, rent, utilities, insurance, equipment and other areas drained most of the revenue.
Tim Slavin: What are some of your lessons learned for Robotics and Beyond?
Paul Chayka: A welcome surprise at the start was that our core beliefs and approach were 100% accurate in terms of how effective they would be: real-world technology and applications were totally appropriate for very young people. Even though we felt this would be the case we could not help but wonder if we were right.
The rather stunning effectiveness of our programs and approach for young people with special learning styles and types of behavior has come as a surprise and one of the most gratifying results of our work. In addition to revealing talents in various areas of design and technology, the impact on socialization for these students has been tremendous. Students of this type face challenges from varying degrees of Aspergers, Tourettes, OCD, ADHD, Autism, Downs Syndrome or other realities such as bullying, social awkwardness and even just having high intellectual talents that make them stand out as “different” from their peers even beginning as young as 2nd or 3rd grade.
Students find an environment with us where hardly anyone seems “unusual,” where acceptance is the norm, where interests are shared, and where questions and communication are unavoidable but without agenda, and where peers or peer mentors are able to answer most questions and give guidance on projects. It makes sense that this would work very well, but how many examples are there where it is actually being implemented?
One major and bad surprise has been the difficulty in pursuing large-scale grants and benefactors that are essential for proper operations and growth. Proper funding is needed to enlist the reliable and capable help required in a number of administrative areas and for instructors and for fixed expenses. We were naive in thinking that the tremendous value we knew we provided was not quickly recognized and that funding offers did not materialize. We were surprised at just how many worthy organizations were fighting for the relatively low amount of local funding from banks and foundations.
Getting small ($20-a few $100) grass-roots donations from individuals and businesses is very important but requires many hours of time. A staff member dedicated to grant writing and fund raising is absolutely essential, but their engagement with and understanding of our mission and approach is equally essential.
Also, the realities of developing and maintaining an effective board have been difficult to digest and I have not yet succeeded in this. We have a board of seven highly motivated and caring individuals but we need more members with time to devote to specific tasks. Resources are available to help not-for-profits like us through our current stage of growth, such as the Connecticut Community Foundation, and I need to make time to take advantage of the great help available there.
To start over, in 2012, I would have put my entire focus on fundraising at high levels of foundations and companies and individuals to generate awareness and provide the capital we really needed to move ahead efficiently. I would have separated myself more from content development and instruction.
Tim Slavin: How did you get started with technology?
Paul Chayka: I found a passion for pottery and glazes starting in 4th grade. When I entered our grade 5-12 school in a small town in central New York, I met a fabulous art teacher who allowed me to take advantage of the high school art resources and encouraged my interests. He was a great teacher in that he was very encouraging but firm when needed and over the years added a wide range of topics to a very small room in a school with a small budget. We had 85 students in a graduating class but had art topics of pottery with electric and gas firing, black and white and color photography, lost wax silver casting, brazing, enameling, screen printing, along with the usual painting, drawing, etc. Over the years his students won many state-wide awards in these areas.
Our little town happened to be the home of a company that made potters clays, casting slips, glaze ingredients and equipment. He introduced me to the owner who hired me in ninth grade to earn money to buy my own pottery wheel.
I learned this owner studied something called Ceramic Engineering at Alfred University in Alfred, NY. As a student, I also liked science and math and decided in tenth grade that I was going to go to Alfred University for Ceramic Engineering. Turned out that the college of Ceramic Engineering and Glass Science was a SUNY school located at a private university.
The SUNY school was also one of the top five ceramic engineering schools in the world at the time and also one of the top two or three departments of ceramic and glass art in the world. Pretty much a perfect match for me. Most engineering students had no interest in the school of art and design but it was an important haven for me to satisfy my desire to see or create art when I needed it.
Although we did not date until after both finishing graduate school, I also met my wife there freshman year. She was also a ceramic engineer who excelled in ceramic art and math and science in high school.
During high school and college, I was lucky to work at three companies involved with ceramics or glass so I knew as a Junior that I did not want to work in manufacturing and stayed at Alfred University for a MS degree.
In my career I was very fortunate to apply materials development in a wide range of applications from genetic sequencing to paint pigments, rocket nozzles, semiconductors and radar absorption. More importantly, I was able to work with people in nearly every area of STEM and many areas of design, and at every level from technician, engineer and scientist to accounting and contracts. Working with many fields of STEM and design and with people in many positions proved to be important for the future of Robotics and Beyond.
In 2000 the company I worked for went 100% into semiconductor applications and I wanted to stay in structural and optical applications so I left to become a consultant. Around that time, our oldest child was in 6th grade. My wife and I were frustrated by the absence of summer programs like camps in the area of technology. The only options were for K-6 and mainly based on life sciences like chemistry, environmental, etc. We bought the LEGO Mindstorms robotics system, the first version, for our son and I decided to try a pilot camp for half days for one week. That was in 2002 and the camp involved 3 students including our son.
Tim Slavin: How has your family been involved since your program started? Has everyone been involved? Has the program brought you closer together or made family time harder, or some combination?
Paul Chayka: My wife and two sons have been involved from the start. My wife has been patient with my time and income, encouraging, and has first-hand knowledge of what I face in terms of teaching these subjects, working with high school students as mentors, and able to contribute ideas for projects like she uses in her classroom.
Because nearly my entire summer is occupied with the camps, and she has summer vacation, and we have many other opposite schedules, it has been difficult to manage and requires a lot of talking and planning to minimize unwelcome scheduling surprises. I was pretty bull-headed about continuing this pursuit in the face of very low income when we needed income badly with kids in college over eight years, so there has been a lot of frustration for both of us.
My older son was the first camper in 2002 and continued to contribute here and there through high school although his interests swung to art as well as math and science and writing. He studied International Relations, with a focus on Chinese language and culture, and Art History at Tufts University. Now 26, he writes about culture, technology and art for many publications and has a unique history to draw on. He continues to give me ideas for reaching broader student audiences and spreading word of our approach and success, especially in the metro New York City area although I have not pursued that region yet. Interestingly, it was a team of Tufts University, LEGO and National Instruments that developed the first LEGO Mindstorms robotics system over 20 years ago and which still works together. Tufts continues to have an exceptional robotics curriculum and outreach to area schools for robotics and STEM topics through their engineering dept. and CEEO (Center for Engineering Education and Outreach).
Our youngest son’s interests have always been in engineering and technology. He attended our camps from 2004 to 2011 as a student or mentor, performed an internship and was very important in adding depth to our computer science and electronics topics. His degree is in Electrical Engineering and he now works on a device team at Apple in Cupertino.
Robotics and Beyond
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