Do you have a bucket list? That mental list of things you want to try…maybe…someday… I thought this was something we all experienced, a common thread of dreams we’ll eventually get around to. That was until I had the pleasure of meeting this month’s SOLIDWORKS Women in Engineering Nominee, Shari Robinson. I’m convinced that no dream has ever made it onto her bucket list because she simply made it a reality as soon as she dreamt it. This incredibly passionate and inspirational woman is a home school mom, an engineer, a programmer, a tinkerer, a multi-team FIRST Robotics coach, a teacher, a community leader, and more. After speaking with Shari, I’ve learned that no dream is too large, and our bucket lists are simply too long. In her words, “Ask questions. Try. You’re going to fail, and when you do, get over it. Then get back up and make it happen.”
Shari attended the University of Virginia where she studied Computer Science Engineering. She currently works in industry as a consultant for companies like SunTrust Bank and Capital One, The Arc of Baltimore, and AT&T. In addition to her consulting work, she also teaches at and directs her Homeschool Resources Center, coaches several FIRST Robotics teams, and somehow finds time to watch movies with her three kids.
HOMESCHOOL RESOURCES GROUP
When I asked Shari how and when she started teaching, her answer was typical of her doer attitude, “I actually never intended to be a teacher. It was an accidental situation. I only started when I started home schooling my son; he was my first student ever. He has been my inspiration and he’s the reason why I have gone down this path. He’s catapulted me to whom and where I am at this moment in time.” Shari and her son experienced a bump in the road when he told her after the first year at home that he wanted to return to public school. They discussed why, and she realized that, while she was so focused on curriculum and getting the work done, she failed to deliver her son a chance to have a social life, to make friends, and see things outside of their home. She asked for one more shot and her son agreed. “From there I went to the complete other extreme and started the Homeschool Resources Group. We put a networking page online and started hosting activities in and around the community. We would borrow rooms at the library, or people would give us spaces, or we’d be in our houses. It became a field trip and extracurricular experience. We went on all kinds of trips within the community and we brought people together. When I was on these field trips, I started looking around and thought, ‘Where did you guys come from?’ All of these people were coming to our field trips and we didn’t even know they were there! There would be thirty people at a field trip and I wouldn’t know there were thirty of us in the room! How does this work? I learned that we can be so disconnected sometimes. That’s how we started Homeschool Resources Group; we began really building those relationships with other homeschoolers in our community. As my life evolved and my children’s lives evolved, we found a physical space. It was important to us to find a physical space because it’s hard to be consistent when you don’t know where you’re going to be. We were borrowing rooms and jumping back and forth from here to there. Every week you would have to check with us and find out where we were. It was too much. Recently, we found a fabulous partner, U-Turn Sports Performance Academy, who offered us space in their building. They lowered their price per square foot low enough so we could afford the space. It was absolutely amazing. It’s a beautiful space in a beautiful building and it gives us room to grow. The best thing about being in a space is that when we moved in, it opened our doors to people who couldn’t find us, or didn’t know us, or didn’t know where to look. They could see our sign on the street and mentors would come in and say, ‘Hey can I help? Can I help your robotics team? Can I teach a class?’ It opened the doors so widely that we were able to grow pretty quickly without really doing any advertising. It’s been a wonderful experience.”
Shari has been a FIRST Robotics coach for four years. Her Lord of the Bricks teams have won multiple awards and competitions, ranging from students ages 6 to 8 participating in FIRST Lego League Junior, ages 9 to 14 competing in FIRST Lego League, and middle to high schoolers, 8th through 12th grade competing in the FIRST Tech Challenge.
“What happened was – and every home school parent will relate to this situation – my son approached me one day and said, ‘Mom, I want to learn how to build robots.’ I said, ‘You want to do what now? A robot? I have no idea how to build a robot or how this works. I have nothing. But you know what? I’m a home school mom, you’re a home school kid, and we’ll figure it out.’ I did some research and I found FIRST Robotics. Your first time out, you don’t know what you’re doing or what’s going on so I chose not to start a team. Instead, I found a team for my son and had him join. I was working full time and I’m a single mom. One of my parents would take him back and forth to practice while I was at work. Unfortunately, the year didn’t go anything like I thought it should. The poor child; it was a devastating experience for him. He got left out of a lot of it and it really devastated him because it was something he really wanted to do. He was 13 when he went on the team. I made a decision at that point that I was going to sculpt his life and sculpt his career. If this is something he really wanted to do, I was going to make sure he got a chance to do it – so I started a team.”
“The very first thing I learned in FIRST is you go through the season and it’s a very real life situation. You don’t have enough money, or resources, or time; you have this deadline, and you have to get it done. You always feel like you’re not prepared. When you get to competition, you’re going to competition with what you have, not necessarily with what you feel like is the best thing you could have ever done. That’s a real situation, and that’s how we do it in real life. Our first year out, we were so very unprepared for competition. The journey is what you’re getting out of it; and the process is what you’re getting out of it. For example, we lost several team members right before our first competition. When you get there, there’s a project presentation you have to do in front of judges, and each kid has to play a role on the team at competition. We’d already divide everything up and we thought for sure, this is how we’re going to go. The children had to adapt very quickly from going to ten team members to four. Everyone had a new role they had to adapt to very quickly. They got to competition and it didn’t go anywhere near as planned. The robot didn’t do half of the things that they thought it would do when they got on the floor. The best possible story came out of this. I had a kid on my team who, according to his mother, had never tried anything to fail. He had always been successful because he never tried anything at which he could fail at. When the roles shifted, he chose to take on the role of programmer. I found this particularly funny because, as a programmer, all you’re ever going to do is fail; that’s your life. You get over it, you fix it, and you keep going. The night before the competition, we were working; it was crunch time, and things were getting hard; and he said, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ I said, ‘Okay, that’s fine. Pack up the robot, it will be fine. We’ll put it in the car, and I’ll meet you at competition tomorrow.’ I could understand completely, and I was giggling in my head, ‘This is rough, kid; but you’ll be okay.’ We got to competition, and we unpacked the robot.He started looking around at all the other robots, and all the other kids, and all the things that were going on; and he said, ‘I want to program the robot!’ I said, ‘Okay, go for it. You’ve got three minutes, go! Do what you can do!’ What was awesome to me was he took his inspiration from what was going on around him. He was never fully successful, but that wasn’t really the point. The point was that he had learned that he felt underprepared, but when he looked around, not everyone was prepared. He wasn’t the only one, and he wanted to try. You’re there to solve a problem and meet a challenge. Your challenge may be something different from what you expect it to be. It may be a personal challenge; or it may be I’m just trying to do better than I did last time. It’s not, ‘I need to beat another team;’ it’s, ‘I need to solve or overcome this for myself.’”
MENTORS AND ADVICE
“What is the best advice I can give someone interested in starting or mentoring a team? Go to competition!!! This was an amazing development that was only possible because we pushed through and actually went to competition. It seems like every single time I talk to a new coach, they get to that point in the year where they say, ‘What if we don’t do competition this year? What if we just do it for the experience, and do it next year?’ I always say, ‘No, don’t do that! Do the competition! The biggest lesson and inspirational boost for your team is going to the competition. It’s not at all what you expect it to be.’ A lot of these teams are community teams. They’re meeting in garages, and basements, and living rooms, and that sort of thing. Not all of them are big, high school teams with lots of resources and lots of people around. Giving your little inspiration to a team makes a huge difference; and it makes a difference to you as a person. We want every child to have the experience of a robotics team. Even if they’re not technically inclined, or don’t necessarily want to be an engineer, but want to be a part of something. There is a place for every child on the team. It’s easy for a child who wants to be a programmer, who wants to be a builder, who wants to do electronics, to realize that. It is also important to know that a child who maybe is a future business major, an artist, a public speaker, has a place. There’s not a single skill that can’t be used on a robotics team. It’s a huge amount of fun; and it’s also a lot of fun seeing how the kids tackle these problems. We have these expectations of our children – because they’re young they can’t do these things, or think these things through, or come up with all these amazing ideas and solutions they come up with. We have these ideas of our children, but when we actually see them in this context doing these things we didn’t expect them to do, it’s an amazing situation.”
GIRLS IN ENGINEERING
A no-quit attitude like Shari’s doesn’t come out of nowhere. When I asked her where she found her inspiration, her answer was immediate. “That’s an easy question; it was my mother. I never knew what boundaries were when I was growing up because I never saw any. I never had any; my mother never experienced any. If there was something that she couldn’t do, she did it anyway. She was the woman who started multiple businesses when I was growing up. When we were small children and we needed daycare and she had to work because she was raising us; she had to work. Her solution was to open a daycare center so that she could kill both birds with one stone. My mother was always the person who stood behind me and said, ‘Okay, try it. See what happens.’ I don’t know any other way; all I can do is ever try. I know that when I try something, there’s a high possibility that I will fail. I also know that once I have failed, I will have learned some really valuable lessons, and I can try again a different way with a different twist. Maybe that will be successful. And if it’s not, that’s okay because I can try it again; and eventually it’s going to work. I refuse to take no as an answer from anybody. If I ask you say, ‘No, you can’t’ or ‘No, I won’t’, I’m going to say, ‘Okay. I’ll come back and ask you again when you’re in a better mood.’”
In every answer to every question I asked her, Shari told me a story about a time she was proud to be a part of someone else’s accomplishment or breakthrough. There wasn’t a single time where she allowed herself to be the centerpiece of the story. This got me wondering, what does she do in her free time? Does she have free time? “Free time? I don’t know what that is. I don’t have me time. I’m a tinkerer. I have three kids and I am always busy, always going. That has shaped why I do what I do. In my spare time, really what I like to do is sit still, just be quiet. I like to program and tinker and build things. When I’m up at 3am, I’m tinkering with things or I’m fixing or finding things or researching things, or programming things. Those are my calming moments.”
MEET THE ROBINSONS
After an amazing discussion on why failure is such is an important part of success, Shari asked me if I’d ever seen the animated movie Meet the Robinsons. What she had to say made me go back and watch the movie again. “There’s this one moment in the film where they are eating dinner, talking about the day, and celebrating a failed invention. During the dinner talk, it comes up that the invention didn’t work at all, and the kid says, ‘You failed. Why are you celebrating?’ The answer made me love that movie for eternity, ‘You know, from your failures, you learn; from your successes, not so much.’”