The chaos theory of seventh-grade boys

I should have been suspicious when my 13-year-old son asked me - his mother, the writer - to be the adviser for his robotics team. Instead, I was so flattered I said yes. At an age when most boys would rather don a tutu than spend time with Mom, I felt truly blessed that my son wanted me.

An intelligent woman would have remembered what happened the last two times her son asked her do something with him.

First, it was an invitation to go on a Boy Scout camping trip. William had been in scouts for a year and allowed his dad to go on many of the trips. I waited somewhat patiently to be wanted, too. When my turn came, I jumped at it without question.

Big mistake.

"So where are we going?" I asked in all innocence.

"Donner Pass."

"In January? Won't there be snow?"

"That's the point."

"There's room in the cabin for women?"

"We're snow camping, Mom."

"So there's another mom I can bunk with?"

"I don't think any other mothers are going. You'll need your own tent."


"We're snow camping, Mom."

I finally got the point. Hike into the snow, pitch tents in the snow, cook in the snow, do everything in the snow. For three days. At Donner Pass.

Now, I'm the kind of gal who is very comfortable in the great outdoors - in spring, summer, and fall. I'm also the kind of gal who puts on her down parka when the mercury drops to 65 degrees F.

"Isn't Donner Pass the place where that wagon train got stuck and all those people froze to death?" I asked.

"Yeah. Cool, huh!" said my son.

It took me two weeks to build up the courage to wimp out on my first Boy Scout camping invite, but I finally did. My son took it in stride, parlaying my guilt into a promise to go river rafting instead.

The most memorable part of that adventure was not bobbing down the American River and getting soaked with virtual water cannons aimed at my face for the better part of four hours. Nor was it being steered under the thorny blackberry bushes that crept along the bank and snagged my new bathing suit. It was supervising dinner production.

In Boy Scouts, I've found that the boys are supposed to do everything, and the job of the adults is to make sure they don't permanently maim themselves while doing so. Supervising dinner is no different; the boys do the cooking, the adults do the observing and the eating.

I never knew observing anything could be so difficult or unappetizing. Let's just say that finding a blue streak of Gatorade in your reconstituted mashed potatoes is not as disconcerting as the odd crunchiness of the same.

So, when William decided to head a team to participate in a robotics competition hosted by The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose and asked me to be the team's adult adviser, I hesitated briefly.

"But I don't know anything about robotics," I protested.

"That's why you'll be good. You won't take over the project."

I chose to accept his reasons for wanting me as a compliment. And he is correct; I haven't taken over the project. I've discovered my job is not so much to advise as to perform crowd control.

Taking five seventh-grade boys out of their school setting and presenting them with a project is like, well, like nothing I'd ever experienced - although I am reminded of the pack of Velociraptors in "Jurassic Park." They communicate through a series of grunts and their No. 1 objective is food. More meeting time is devoted to the procurement and consumption of snacks than for any other item of business.

"How are you going to attach the wheels to the chassis?" I ask.

"You gonna eat that cupcake?"

"Hey, you already had two cupcakes."

Being the good adviser I am, I bring them back on track. "Gentlemen," I say in a very authoritative tone, "how are you going to attach the wheels to the chassis?"

"I want sprinkles. Andy brought sprinkles."

Besides food, I've found my team is obsessed with things that stick or flame. It seems you can't have too much duct tape. It sticks to fingers, mouths, clothing; and if you ball it up and launch it at someone, it will stick to hair, too. Oh, and sometimes it even sticks to something mechanical.

Another favorite is Super Glue. The answer to the question, "How are you going to attach ...?" is always "Super Glue."

That was true until the grandfather of one of the boys loaned William a propane torch and taught him to solder - something that involves flames and making things stick. Talk about a miracle device!

So how do you attach the peg to the frame? Solder it.

How do you attach the nut to the bolt? Solder it.

My experience as a robotics team adviser has taught me valuable lessons about working with teens, including the universal importance of snacks and the drawing power of fire.

I have also learned that when you torch a Tootsie Roll, it melts and hardens into a miniature puck. How did I discover this phenomenon? By learning that if you leave boys alone for even one minute with a propane torch and a Tootsie Roll, they will experiment.

I still haven't figured out what this has to do with robotics, but the boys assure me they're working on it.

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