A few months back, I came across this Google+ post by roboticist Annika O’Brien, talking about the 12-year-old girl she has been mentoring, named Coco Kaleel. I was interested to hear more about their mentor-mentee relationship, so I got in touch with Coco and Annika to tell me a bit about how they met and what they’ve learned from each other. Here are their thoughts:
Coco Kaleel, the mentee:
Soldering! Really, that’s how it all started with us. Soldering usually helps connect an electrical component to a circuit board and that connection allows current to pass through, completing the circuit. For me, the skill of soldering connected me to someone really special — and much, much more.
Greetings! I am Coco and I’m 12 years old. As far back as I can remember, I loved to make things. When I was three I built a hand-cranked carousel with a flywheel and gear pattern from Tinker Toys for my stuffed animals. I later got into Legos and have loved them ever since.
The LA Robotics Club
When I was around 8, I got a set of Lego Mindstorms, and that’s really when I started to get into electronics. The Mindstorms were really cool, but I wanted more flexibility. That lead me to the Arduino. I learned a little about programming it on the Adafruit Learning System tutorials. However, everything really changed when I went to the LA Robotics Club and met Annika O’Brien (who is currently Chief Roboticist and CTO at STEAMtrax).
Annika is the founder of the club, which now has over 1,800 members. I didn’t really plan on Annika becoming my mentor, but that’s what happened. It all started, though, because of soldering. I showed up at Annika’s first soldering class at the LA Robotics Club. Annika went through all the steps with me, the safety protocol … and I loved it!
Joining a Hackerspace
Annika then urged me to go see Rob Bishop speak (he’s the first engineering employee of Raspberry Pi). The presentation took place at a hackerspace in downtown LA. As soon as I saw it, I knew I had to join (I think I was the first kid they let in). At my hackerspace I had access to equipment like an industrial laser cutter and tech experts (the members) who eventually challenged me to solder circuits to make fun blinky badges. They taught me microscope-aided surface mount soldering.
I Start Teaching and Presenting and Gain Another Mentor
Then, one of the members asked if I wanted to teach a soldering class at the Central Library during Teen Tech Week (a national event sponsored by the American Library Association). As a fifth grader, I got to teach a group of high-schoolers and community college students to solder, the thinking being that if I could do it, so could they. From there Annika connected me to the Loscon 40 convention where I presented a talk titled Girls & Robots. I got to be on two panels discussing the future of technology. Just before this, I assembled a 3D printer from a kit made by Deezmaker and at the Loscon 40 Convention, I demonstrated soldering and 3D-printing in the Make Room.
Throughout this journey, I also connected with another mentor, Joan Horvath, from Deezmaker. She’s an American astronomer and aeronautic scientist (with a degree from MIT). Wow, two awesome women mentoring me! Joan connected me to the 3D-Printer World Expo where I was honored to get to make a poster presentation about “What I Learned by 3D-Printing.” And now, this blog for MAKE. All this from learning that simple skill of soldering!
What I’m Up To Now
Currently, I use a Bukobot 8 Vanilla v2 3D-Printer from Deezmaker. I keep a website (veryhappyrobot.com) for reviewing electronic kits. I also blog on the website about many of my technological endeavors and tech news from around the world. I love going to the garage and taking old electronics apart and repurposing them. Knowing how to solder allows me to attempt anything my imagination creates.
I have many plans for summer vacation, like creating an air-powered hoverboard (if I can convince my mom it will be safe), making my own quadcopter drone, and working on perfecting my surface mount soldering. When I grow up, I want to become an engineer of some sort; both mechanical and genetic seem very cool. I hope to mentor someone someday, just like Annika mentors me. Having a mentor cheering you on, challenging you, and holding your hand along the way has made all the difference for me. As a roboticist who happens to be a woman, Annika inspires me. I am so glad we connected and to think it all began with soldering!!!
Coco Kaleel is currently in the 6th grade and secretary of her school’s student council. She created veryhappyrobot.com to review electronic kits and inspire others. She also fences, plays piano, drums, guitar, ukulele, and helps puppy-raise labs for Guide Dogs of America.
Annika O’Brien, the mentor:
When I was 8 years old, my father brought home a Commodore 64 for my sisters and me — a video game console! But, he quickly put the brakes on that idea and handed me the Programmers Reference Guide (along with some other BASIC and arcade game programming books). He insisted that if I wanted to play games, I’d have to learn to code first.
Much like my protege, Coco Kaleel, I wasn’t the daughter of an electronics maven. My father was a doctor and my mother was an aeronautical engineer who loved to race motorcycles and rebuild classic car engines in the driveway. But, they had a vision about my future. My parents would give me broken/outdated gadgets. It was the early 90s, so things were built to last a little longer than they are today and Moore’s Law wasn’t as quick to render everything obsolete. I had a boom box, which I had opened a few times to clean out with a dry toothbrush and re-solder a joint that had come loose in the process. Both of my parents were highly supportive of anything that pertained to learning. I wasn’t spoiled with an excess of trendy clothes or toys, but I was never denied a book. I benefitted most from my parents always encouraging curiosity and providing me with information.
One of my nicknames as a child was “Annika Britannica.” I read so much that when other kids asked questions like, ”Why is the sky blue?” I would give an entire explanation about gas molecules, wavelengths, and Rayleigh scattering.
I had a massive mental crush on Carl Sagan. In fact, he’s been a huge inspiration in my adult life more recently as I have moved from a career in robotics to a career in robotics education.
Getting STEAM into Schools
I recently co-founded a company with a focus on the STEAM fields (Science, Technology Engineering, Art, and Math). I am working to make the various engineering processes part of the regular school curriculum taught in every school in North America. It’s important that each child find where they fit into all of this. I moved to Houston at the end of last year to work with folks from Rice University who aim to make an impact in the current education system.
It’s also an extension of the work I did the last four years that I was living in Southern California. I was able to find over 1,800 people who enjoyed hobbyist electronics within the first three years of founding the LA Robotics Club. Robots today are what personal computers were in the 80s — like that Commodore 64 my dad brought home — and robotics needs to be integrated into all schools.
The Mentoring Relationship is Mutually Beneficial
With teaching and mentoring, I’ve always felt it was important to learn from others and pay that service forward to the next generation. I’ll bring this back to Coco and soldering. I was good at soldering and on numerous occasions was asked to teach classes. I finally decided to do it. I invited about 50-60 people to an “Introduction to Soldering” class and said, “I can solder, but I don’t teach, so watch me and ask questions.”
I remember explaining at one point that you have to heat the pad and the end of the lead from the back of the board while you push the solder toward the hole and watch it pool until it forms a nice shape that resembles a slightly deflated bead. As the questions came, it forced me to think not just about what I was doing, but why I was doing it that way. I ended up going into oxidation, flux, how heat draws liquid, and so much more. Having to explain the principles of soldering forced me to reassess my methods and ultimately made me much better at soldering, as well as more organized when instructing a class.
Getting to Know Coco
During this soldering class, I met Coco for the first time. I remember apologizing to her father if she couldn’t understand most of what I was saying. Two weeks later she came back with a box full of microcontroller kits. I inspected each one, asking who soldered them. She said she had. Then I took a closer look and said, “These are really good! Who helped you?” to which she responded that she had done them herself. Impressed, I asked her “How many years have you been soldering? You’re about as good as I am.” She said, “You taught me for the first time two weeks ago.” Then her father interjected that he hadn’t been able to pry the soldering iron from her grasp since that class. I remember how embarrassed I was during the class that I kept making mistakes and felt like I hadn’t done a very good job at teaching. Yet a 10-year-old was able to not only understand everything I taught her, she was able to take that home with her and put it to immediate use, later fixing the dishwasher at their home by replacing a $1 part with her soldering iron.
Looking back over the past few years, I feel good when I think about how much I have learned from others and how much I have been able to pass on. I wish I had more time to work in mentoring roles one-on-one with kids like Coco, but I’ve found that sometimes the best I can do is point them in the right direction, like my parents did for me. The best thing for a child is having a parent who equips them with the tools they need. I would not have met Coco had her father not sought me out. She wouldn’t have learned to solder had her parents not been willing to support her.
I remember sitting down with Coco and her father and bookmarking every Arduino tutorial site I could think of. I listed all the websites I knew that offered free electronics courses. Coco went through every single one and learned more than many of the adults I have met who had attended my Arduino classes. I’ve mentored other kids, and as bright and promising as many of them have been, none stick out like Coco and only a few even come close. It’s important that no matter how knowledgeable you may be in a certain subject, you should always look to others to keep learning. And you have an obligation to pass that knowledge on to others. By gaining confidence through mentoring, I can no longer see myself NOT helping, NOT sharing, NOT being a catalyst for change. It’s sort of who I am now.
Annika O’Brien is the co-founder of STEAMtrax where she designs projects for K–12 engineering curricula. She has a background in computer science and robotics, and designed electronics in Hollywood and various organizations that benefit underserved youth. She founded the LA Robotics Club, is involved in numerous community outreach programs, and is an avid maker.