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I think it was Samuel Beckett who once said, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” This phrase captures the essence of my 2018 summer, all because of an invitation to compete for a place on Albania’s national robotics team, which would attend FIRST Global in Mexico City.
School was not out yet, I was studying for secondary credit exams, preparing for my most important piano competition, and I couldn’t wait to go on holiday. But representing Albania on an international scale among 196 other countries? That would be an adventure like no other. However, qualifying for the team was no easy feat. I had to compete against 15 other contestants, all of them older than me, and make it to the top 3. And mind you, most of them were students at IT and technical schools and one of them was already part of last year’s team. If I somehow made it, we had a total of $395 from our GoFundMe page out of the minimum $14,000 necessary to send only 3 of the team members and a coach to Mexico City, and we had no other potential fundraisers. I realized that apparently there’s a lot more to robotics than just robots..
Yet, I decided to spend my summer engineering a robot and I imagined doing a number of different things such as programming and building and testing prototypes; but, spending my time writing, editing, 3D designing, and moreover, winning a prestigious prize at the Robotics Olympic, wasn’t any of those things.
I’m getting ahead of myself, after the entry level exam I qualified for the top 3 and the funds did come in eventually.
I became head designer and mechanic and spent most of the practices learning by doing, which included making mistakes. Lots of them. All the time. I would spent hours of my free time everyday designing improvements for last practices’ robot, new prototypes, and solutions to possible problems. Then we would build the prototype, wire it, program it and still run into errors and mechanical failures. So I started recording what we did and how we did it, so that we wouldn’t repeat the same mistakes twice. It provided an anchor so to speak, that helped me keep track of our ideas and how they developed as we confronted new problems. Those messy scribbles became the first thing I’d check before redefining the robot’s criteria to work around the new obstacles; they helped me orient myself in the vast void of engineering possibilities and come up with more effective and accurate designs.
That extra step at the end of a long day was often tiring, but I saw such a value in that little bit of extra effort everyday. But, my notetaking did become the butt of jokes for the rest of my team who thought it to be crushingly boring and pointless because, “Why do engineers also need to write?”
And during one of those hot and sweaty days, where avoiding the choking heat seemed more important than taking note of latest in a long line of failures, I googled it: “engineer” means “to produce or bring forth” in Latin. And until someone invents a way to broadcast the ideas they bring forth directly to the world, writing will be a necessary and useful part of engineering; crucial to systematic improvement instead of reiteration of our previous failures. Maybe one day I’d be the one to invent that technology, but for now I’d hang on to my messy notepad and camera roll filled with pictures of unfinished robots.
Little did I know just how useful those scribbles would become, until a particular prize stood out to me among the many others to be earned at FIRST Global, “Katherine Johnson Award for Engineering Documentation”.
“Engineering Documentation” an Engineering Notebook, that’s what I’ve been doing this whole time! I thought. In my mind I had the Engineering Notebook, but transforming my scribbles into a clear and comprehensive book that could accurately detail and communicate our Engineering Process to others, would take a lot more work.
My work days started and and ended late. They were long days of questioning, explorations, analyzing, investigations, building and creating. Sometimes those days were infuriating, and some days offered no satisfaction whatsoever, at any time. But I never felt more alive than during that time of unrest and disharmony. It was that dissatisfaction
that brought me to search for external help with other FIRST teams. Three of them in the US answered positively. Because of the time difference, I spent many late hours working through issues and possible designs with them.
My mentor advised me to take it easy on myself. My parents advised me to also try and have some fun during my summer. And I wish I could too, but I felt responsible toward the many people that had accepted to help me, and revise my work. I was grateful for their help. For some reason, that I may not ever fully understand, the three teams across the ocean came together to help me. I’ve chosen to conclude that the reason may be so that I could learn a life lesson.
During those late night interactions, waking up glad knowing that there would be a new email sent after I went to bed, I felt a camaraderie, and an intellectual connection with people I never met but shared so much passion with. I experienced the joy of uncompetitive purposefulness and decided that I too, will someday try to make a difference in somebody’s life; I will choose to amplify each other’s accomplishments, because there is enough to go around.
In Mexico we missed the qualifying bracket for semi-finals. The struggle was over. My love of robotics had led me to heartbreak. All hope was dissolved.
But to our puzzled surprise, we were called to the judging table:
“Team Albania, please step forward.” We squirmed through the crowd of eager faces surrounding the judges.
“We are proud to present you with the second prize for the Katherine Johnson Engineering Documentation Award.”
Adrenaline raced through my veins, my heart beat against my ribcage, and I attempted to stifle my increasingly irregular breathing.
As a judge hung the silver medal around my neck, she stopped for a moment, seemingly wondering at my red face, “Are you the mother of the Engineering Notebook?”
Mother, how fitting.
With that word she zinged to the heart of how I felt all along about my beloved notebook. The surprise I experienced at the way she connected the two things together brought me up short and caused tears to slip down my cheeks.
“Yes, I am.”
The judge smiled and motioned to her fellow judges to come over.
“Meet the author of the Notebook.”
“The 3D designs were amazing, we were very impressed.”
“Yes, we loved it. The precision and detail were beautiful.”
“Very well done,” said another judge as he shook my hand.
I thanked each gratefully. There are so many joys in life, but this one in particular was an unintended side-effect of my work and felt like a miracle, touching everything with light - maybe precisely because I had forgotten to think about it. I was totally absorbed in finishing that engineering notebook, because it gave me a sense of achievement, a sense of purpose. I felt that I was making a contribution. I felt creative. Writing the notebook was an award I was giving to me, and it felt as if somebody else just agreed with me on a stage.
As a famous engineer, Henry Petroski, put it: “To engineer is human.” And this first attempt at engineering helped me discover more about what is it to be human, and I can’t put a prize on that.