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Thousands of Tiny Robots

The Modular Robotics Blog

Remember when you were a kid and someone would ask you, at the beginning of school, to write an essay or introduce yourself by talking about what you did over your summer vacation? I used to try and prepare (because I’m a huge dork) and draft it in my head before I returned to school. So, here, a quick PRE-cap of MOD BOT Edu’s summer vacation.

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I’m writing this post from Atlanta, a land of endless fried vegetables and phenomenally good jazz and brass band music. We’re here for the ISTE 2014 conference. We’ve met some inspiring educators and innovators here, and it’s been great to have our booth on the Exhibition floor as well as have the team giving four presentations during the conference.  We’re so excited to have so many chances to connect with educators, give them a chance to try Cubelets and MOSS, and share ideas.

After this I head to Dallas where I’ll be co-managing a really cool and out-of the-box collaboration between our company and the Frontiers of Flight museum. This is big, everyone – while MOSS has been out in the world, this is the first time we’ll be using it for structured education and I’m thrilled to pilot it in a new camp that we are jointly offering with this museum on engineering, robotics, and space! As a bonus, while I’m in Dallas, I’m doing a Radio Disney interview about robots, education, and what we’re doing. I also get to work with with Perot Museum of Nature and Science’s Leaders in Science Teachers, and their Family Discovery day on July 12th.

Then I jet off to Chicago where colleague Donald Ness and I will be talking about how playing with robots can lead to computational thinking and learning about code at CSTA’s 2014 conference.

Once I’m back, I’m slated to be at RAFT Colorado’s Summer Symposium for teacher training, and then doing a full-day teacher STEM experience with robots at Xsci.

It’s a full dance card for Mod Bot Edu, but we’re thrilled to have the opportunity to share our results and work directly with a wider group of awesome and inquisitive educators. We have our eye on a few new places to be and be seen in 2015 so don’t be surprised if you see us hitting the road again then!

 

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Urban Dictionary defines this divine device as: A fridge modified to contain a keg and dispense beer. What’s needed: old fridge, drill, tap, facuet, hose, CO2 tank, CO2 regulatior, and a keg. A quality home improvement for the weekend warrior.

We welcome you, our Kegerator from Mobile, AL. Yet another large machine for our factory and offices, and cause for a wonderful, spontaneous use of the word “majestic!” I suggest it receives a royal name befitting its status.

 

 

 

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This week, our staff is exhibiting what can only be described as collaborative awesomeness in getting ready for CES. Travel arrangements are in full swing, checklists have been checked. And double checked.

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Furniture has been built and crated for shipping.

These crates remind a few of us of the movie Jurassic Park, when the dinosaurs arrived
These crates remind a few of us of the movie Jurassic Park, when the dinosaurs arrived

It’s a flurry of activity around here, and it’s only the beginning. When we took a look at the event calendar, the truth dawned on us: we have at least one major event every month until August.

Game on, 2014. We’re thrilled to have so many cool venues for putting Cubelets and MOSS into people’s hands. I know that whenever I do a class, camp, teacher training or event, a light comes on as people start to make robots on their own.

As 2013 drew to a close, I was already feeling really pleased about all of the things Modular Robotics Education had done for the year. Classes, camps, museums, outreach, events and really building out our network. Getting to know our educational users and working directly with many of them lead to some amazing collaborations. The best of those lead to tangible wins, results, and take-aways for all the people involved. The best of the best lead to longer-term shared projects such as “how can we turn robot building into 5th graders learning programming?” or “let’s write a large unit on Engineering and design using Cubelets!”

As we kick-off 2014, I keep moving forward with big lesson planning projects and goals to delve into areas that might seem less obvious for creating robotics lesson plans and activities (Ecosystems and adaptation, math, literacy, and more!). I also am looking forward to working with more school districts, camps, and museums this year, as well as deepening our collaborations with those we’ve worked with in 2013.

And on top of that, my education contributions to our company’s whirlwind event schedule include appearing as an invited artist at Toronto International Film Festival’s Kids digiPlay space, us doing demos and workshops in D.C. at United States Science and Engineering Festival, and we’ll be speaking at conferences here in Colorado as well as in Atlanta for ISTE and at the Computer Science Teacher’s Association conference in Illinois!

See you out in the big world students and educators! We can’t wait to meet you and see what you do with Cubelets and MOSS in 2014.

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Is it weird for me to post on our blog about engineering?

Aside from our production staff of assembly elves who busily and fabulously make Cubelets, our largest staff contingent is Engineers, and I’m not on it. We have firmware, hardware, mechanical, electrical, and software engineers. I share an office with several of the Modular Robotics engineers, but I keep my feet firmly planted in “Education.”  Still, today, I want to say a bit about engineering.

In my early life, I was the child of an engineer. A lot of people think of engineers this way:

pocket-protectorAnd, don’t get me wrong, we did have quite a thing about graph paper, mechanical pencils, and protractors in my house growing up (most memorably, when designing Jack-o’-lantern faces in October). But my strongest memories of absorbing engineering by osmosis have a lot more to do with being asked to make a deliberate practice of defining a challenge and naming possible solutions – in my homework, in the kitchen, and in how we did chores and laundry and leaf-raking.

I’ve read scary statistics about workforce readiness and the state of our education to prepare students to be innovators, problem solvers, and engineers. things like, At the current growth rate of engineering jobs we will produce only one-third of the engineer educated students we need to fill those jobs in 10 years. I’m not sure how to verify the accuracy of these numbers, and of course, they depend on a lot of multi-variate and ever-changing factors.

I suspect the point of these statements is to get us all thinking about what we can do differently for our children and students and schools. So, on that criteria, this statement works for me. I thought about how privileged I was to grow up with engineering in my life, and indeed, my home. I also realized how awesome it is to work here surrounded by engineers and to be reintroduced to the language and unique problem solving processes engineers use. (It’s not uncommon to hear our staff saying “Can we pursue a solution that gets around that constraint? or “How can we reverse engineer that?” about non-engineering challenges.)

And I went away and, with the help of a four amazing collaborators from Science Matters, wrote the first installment of an Engineering and Design Principles unit! Students can learn valuable engineering approaches from making robots, and while we’ll add more lesson plans to this unit in the future, I wanted to get it out there now and see what teachers, camps, and clubs thought if it. Enjoy this collection of 5 lesson plans (soon to be more!) individually, or as a progression and unit of learning to introduce engineering as a cool way of approaching science and design together with your students – and be sure to let us know what you think!

 

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I’ve been neglecting our blog! How can it be?

Well, I’ve been writing so very much here at Modular Robotics. Grants, presentations, conference proposals, lesson plans, and more. Many, many words, and even more time spent word-crafting leaves me feeling less than articulate when it comes to our blog. So, for this post, I’m going to let some pictures do most of the talking.

Modular Robotics was invited to Denver’s Girl Geek Dinner this month. What fun!  But more than fun, I love the opportunity to show off Cubelets and talk about the ways in which they’ve empowered girls to build a bridge from productive play to deeper comprehension.

Of course, with many girls, geeks, and gadget-lovers there, we also got to see some rad robot-building.

A budding maker and tech-innovator built some small moving robots first, and then gave herself the task of making a dog.

Emma's Dog
Emma’s Dog

Kelly was really interested in driving robots, and using the Inverse Cubelet.
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Kelly’s smart-driver
IMG_3171Helen made fast friends with us at our table, playing and making lots of robots
So we were thrilled when she won the raffle and went home with a KT06 of her own!

IMG_3160Thanks for having us Girl Geek – we loved talking about how Cubelets are a robot construction kit for everyone. We loved having smart ladies of all ages build amazing robots with us even more!

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Recently, I worked with a really cool and diverse group of teachers and librarians at Colorado RAFT Teacher Symposium. When I was approached to do this and heard it was a three hour workshop, I was unconditionally thrilled. A whole morning with creative teachers who are invested in hands-on education (why else would they be involved with RAFT?) and Cubelets? Pick me.

Others expressed doubts – what will you do with them for three hours? Won’t you get tired? Won’t they get bored?

I’ve been doing fast-and-snappy teacher professional development workshops since April and had some practice laps in, so I felt ready. For me, the key is paying attention to what teachers want, what they need, and determining where we can fit in.

After my first time offering teachers a chance to play with Cubelets, I remember being psyched with how little time it took adults to stoop down on their hands and knees in order to build driving, racing robots. I have a background in training instructors, so I wasn’t nervous to train a room of teachers; but I was pleased to witness that the level of active curiosity I see with kids and Cubelets bubbles up in adults too.

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Offering more teacher professional development workshops wasn’t only good practice for me, it meant I learned more specifics about what teachers want. I heard teachers commenting that educators need to talk about STEAM, not just STEM. (The ‘A’ is for Arts. And after all, engineers design and make. And that does lead right back to the arts.) I listened well when teachers said they needed clever ways to teach cause and effect. I paid attention when teachers mentioned how popular robotics was in STEM right now, and how hard it is to find an options that will “start kids off” before engaging with robotics kits that require programming.

Most memorably, on my third try at teacher professional development, I heard some teachers who had not been in my workshop gabbing in the hall. They didn’t know I was behind them and said, “The last thing I want as a teacher is someone who hasn’t had to do it in the classroom trying to tell me how something will go with my students as a way of hard selling me.”

YUP! Iloathe the “hard sell” approach. I’d hate it even more if someone tried to tell me what would and wouldn’t work in my classrooms without having any experience with any students, much less my students.

For this reason that I do my best to test each and every lesson plan idea I have on real students. I do this not because I want to have a more convincing sell to teachers, but rather, because I want our lesson plans to impart real, use-in-your-classes value when teachers, camps, and schools do buy Cubelets.

Bonus: this frees me up to do what works anyways – let the Cubelets do the talking! I jabber for just a few minutes and then focus  on listening to good educator ideas and facilitating teachers to play and learn. In short, I’m back to seeing how fast I can get teachers playing, letting their inner-child bring out their creativity and mixing it with their expertise about what their students, classrooms, and schools need.

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I often find that  people (of all ages) gain deeper comprehension of “what do they do” once they have their hands on Cubelets, than if I stand, demo, and talk about them. It’s not that questions don’t come up. Of course they do! But answering them is far easier and more enjoyable when people can try things out live. Teachers especially want to see things in action.

For this three hour session I saw teachers on their hands and knees playing with their robots. I saw art teachers making robots, and then hastily and creatively constructing environments for their robots. I saw teams of educators making robots that react to other robots and dubbing it, “the robot dance party. “ I had teachers joke that they were using the “force” (Distance Cubelet) to control driving robots and comment on how kids could see this as magic, but then investigate what was causing that “magic.”

More substantially I heard teachers ask (and answered):

“I want something for teens and tweens to do that will inspire them to use technology for more than texting and Youtube.”

We’re really interested in students gaining intuitions about systems, logic, and computational thinking in tangible, immediate ways that give them feedback so that they can more confidently take on wanting to engineer, design, or write code in abstract ways.

“I want my art students to think about design like this.”

We love seeing students (and teachers!) design by pulling things apart and re-configuring them so fast they almost don’t have time to articulate their plan!

“Can I ask you more about emergent behavior? When I hear “behavior” I think of the students’ behaviors in class but as I’m making this robot, I think you mean something different.”

This was one of my favorite questions to answer!  “Because each Cubelet has exactly one function people often think the way to track ‘how many’ they can make has to do just with the counting (or combinatorics) of each Cube, function, or the faces on the Cubelets. But sometimes as you’re adding functions and the Cubelets are sending and receiving information from more than one other Cubelet, behaviors emerge that you didn’t plan or design. It’s what makes people refer to Cubelets robots as animals or people-like even though they are the least android-looking robots I’ve ever seen.”

“These robots are different from other robots, aren’t they? There’s no brain pieces – they are all sharing data.”

Yes! Cubelets robots are a distributed system. That sounds technical. Another way to say it is that every component is parallel and “talks” directly to one another. Imagine if your foot was connected directly to your ears, with no brain mediating sensory information or reactions.

“What’s the youngest you’ve seen students ‘get it’ with these?”

I’ve seen a child who wasn’t yet 3 years old build sense-act robots successfully and ask me enough questions to use ALL of the senses and actions!

“What’s the oldest you’ve seen students still stay motivated and engaged with Cubelets?”

We know that the shape and colors of Cubelets gives them the gross-motor, young child, Pre-K look. Pre-schoolers can “get it” with minimal support and the right set-up. But as older students get their hands on Cubelets, they too get it, and add layers of sophistication, posing their own questions and challenges, and then setting themselves up to construct the right investigation to answer themselves. Quite simply, I’ve been amazed with what students do with Cubelets from ages not-yet-three up to 18!

“Do you think this could be used for Special Ed science?”

Yes! Since I’ve seen kids from Pre-K all the way up to 12th grade work with Cubelets in developmentally appropriate ways, I could easily find the point on that continuum that your Special Ed student(s) matched up with and make adjustments that would make a Cubelets Lesson plan work!


But mostly what I heard was “Come look at what I made!”

Not that different from what happens when I pack up Cubelets and take them into schools and camps full of kidos! Lots of excitement and discovery – not surprising. After all, all the best educators I know work with students because they found ways to learn enjoyably and wanted to pass it on. Of course these same people know how to locate their inner-excited-student!

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Don’t let educators and instructors fool you by their use of words like “pedagogy” and “paradigm.” We know how to have a good time.

I’ve known this for a long time in my career whether I’ve been a camp director, after school educator and curriculum writer, working in a pre-school setting or with college students. When the day is done, the lesson plans prepared, and the papers are graded, friends in the “biz” are not only great party-mates but creative in their pursuit of fun. With this in mind, we decided to host some of our closest friends and allies in education here for a dinner party with equal parts fun, learning, good food, and good times.

Since it was our first foray into hosting a community of people who are excited not just about Cubelets, but also about a better way for students to learn, we kept it to a fairly small group hoping they would all get to know each other and be part of a continuing conversation. (Never fear – we’ll do this again, and next time it could be your turn!)

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We’re lucky to know so many quality Modular Robotics enthusiasts that we could draw together educators representing a lot of variety – Pre-K to high school, from arts and electronics to engineering and robotics, and from public school teacher to retired software engineer/new after school program leader to our friends at SparkFun. Smart, imaginative, and every single one fired up by the idea of how to share ideas and raise hands-on education above the level of playtime.

This kind of talk sounds lofty and high-horsed. I know I have particular ideas about what people should learn and how that can be achieved. I also know I’m not alone. What was special about this gathering was not that it was a crowd of followers, but rather a community of people who each have particular ideas, but care more about sharing those ideas in powerful ways than beating down other perspectives.

Food and fun help bring these kinds of groups together in a positive way, of course, so as hosts we did our part to treat our guests to entertaining education and yummies.
IMG_1966I’ve been working with a number of science programs that have schooled me in the language of claims and evidence so let me tell this next part of the story in that STEM-speak.

Claim: Even if our dinner menu had been less stellar, the company we gathered would still have collaborated on creative ideas that blew me away.

Evidence: In the “Cubelets Dinner Party Challenge” part of the evening they created chicken and cow robots! Starting with a simple robot (no more than 5-6 Cubelets) they tinkered and came up with robots representing farm animals. Never in my wildest imagination would I have predicted that!

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Did I tell you educators knew how to have fun?

We are privileged to be parts of the kinds of learning communities that deeply consider the role of building and making, coding vs. computational thinking, student-lead and discovery-based learning, and how to support authentic and lasting learning. I’ve shared these moments with our education friends in classes with their students as we excitedly watched what students created and discovered. I’ve had these moments meeting with our allies over coffee and beer. I’ve had this moment at events and conferences too, but I don’t want these moments just to be warm memories that sustain me at my desk. So, it seemed only fitting that we would take the next step and not just be members of that community, but hosts that help build and sustain it.

What emerged was grander even than that – a genuine desire, from everyone at the table, to be part of a movement changing what students learn, and how they learn it. My kind of party. 

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Sometimes I think about not having the classical robotics education in my bag of tricks (educator and Cognitive Psychologist over here, so I’ve spent much more time thinking about humans, rats, philosophy and AI than about Mindstorms in my professional past).

I wanted to learn more in order to better discuss robotics with whip-smart high school students competing in robotics challenges. Most of these students, somewhere along the way, build maze solvers. Why? Well, that’s a little hard to package into a neat, one-sentence answer, but it has a lot to do with Cognition and AI and engineering those qualities into devices.

Here’s our version, with a twist – most robotics is “top down” with a central brain or program controlling sensors and actuators. Cubelets are a parallel and distributed system. So, we set out to make a maze-solver with a plan to use the Bluetooth Cubelet and to program a Cubelets maze solver.

Follow this recipe:

1. First, work at the coolest robotics toy company ever.

2. Build a robot with Cubelets.

2a. Worry that Cubelets don’t have central brains.

3. Decide to reprogram your robot. (This is where the Bluetooth Cubelet comes in)

4. Assemble a crack team to build a maze, define the problem, and iteratively code and test. Spend several hours on this.

5. That night, run this by your best friend who reminds you that often the best way out of a maze is to keep one hand on the wall at all times and just keep following that.

6. Say that to the co-founder of the company.

7. Wait 10 minutes

8. Take this video of the “brainless” robot he built successfully solving our simple maze (without re-programing!). Huzzah!

 

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What does deep space have to do with Cubelets? I have both funny and serious answers to that question.

Serious first: Someday I hope to see students at camps thinking about NASA, space ventures to Mars and beyond, astro-biology, and robotics using Cubelets. It goes without saying that I wouldn’t be working here if I didn’t have an almost religious belief in the importance of all students understanding the principles of science. But I have maybe even a stronger desire for all students to appreciate and experience that amazing undertakings are achieved in little steps. Moreover, the greatest feats are accomplished and accumulate most appreciably when teams of dedicated people bring the full weight of their technical expertise, skills and knowledge, and personality to bear on a team. Sometimes I explain Cubelets robots to young children this way – that each function contributes its work to a larger process and becomes part of a “team” that makes a robot. But, if we’re really talking about huge, massive, previously unthinkable accomplishments it would be almost insulting not to mention Curiosity because nothing beats a seriously cool robot landing on Mars or seeing a room full of engineers celebrate years of work coming to fruition. Plus, in case you missed it, one of those engineers is now immortalized as “Mohawk Guy.” Rad.

Now for the less-than-serious: I’m one of the older people here at Modular Robotics and grew up on The Muppets. I really can’t hear the word “space” and not also think “Pigs in.” It was epic, and always one of my favorite segments. Just that echoing voice saying it, “Piiiiigggs Iiiinnn Spaay-yaaccee.” Yes.

So, when we began discussing a collaboration with a business owner who told us his venture was called Deep Space Parker I was a more than a little intrigued. Over the weeks of talking to Deep Space Parker’s founder, Brian, we’ve become good friends and we consider him a great example of a non-traditional educator. As in, he may not have a degree in education or lead a classroom of 2nd graders but that’s not stopping him from wanting to contribute to the local education scene. When he invited us to not only exhibit but to teach a short robot class, of course the answer was yes!

In addition to seeing our good friends and early-adopters of Cubelets, Ameribotics, we also got a chance to interact with other tech and robotics programs for kids including Sharc and FIRST Robotics as well as several others. It’s great to be part of such an esteemed group, but for me the real motivation to do events like this is to put Cubelets into the hands of kids and educators. The best moments are when a child first hooks up a Battery, Sense, and action Cube and they make the classic Oh-My-GOODNESS face of joy and awe as they see they’ve created a robot that does something cool. This moment is always so brief as kids then get down to business – once they’ve made one robot that works they set themselves very quickly to the task of making more, bigger, and more sophisticated robots!

One of the things that’s so great about building robots with Cubelets is that it’s so scalable. Little roboticists, like this 3 year-old, can get a handle on building simple, yet incredibly satisfying, robots.

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At the same time a middle-schooler at our table can be considering what it means to have a robot with multiple senses and multiple actions.

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Exhibiting is fun, especially when you’re working with fun team mates

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But I was especially psyched to teach a short robotics workshop for parents and kids to build robots together.

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One of the things I love most about the kinds of learning Cubelets robots lends itself to is that parents and kids start out on an equal footing. It’s an awesome feeling to see parents and kids trying ideas together, testing out a theory, making joint design decisions, and teaching each other as they figure out the sense-think-act relationships they’re building.

One of the better moments of the night was when Deep Space Founder, Brian, took some time out from his evening to come and play at our table. He brought along a Cubelets expert, his daughter. She got him up to speed quickly, and then he asked me for some challenges. He and his daughter worked really hard to understand how to best use the Think blocks in their joint robot build.

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I left them with a challenge and Brian has been emailing me with updates ever since then. Cubelets on the brain, as well as in Deep Space then!

I’m looking forward to seeing how Brian and Deep Space move forward with creating a multi-use space for office-share during the day and a space for after-school programs and events at night. Thanks for having us!

 

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Since the first week of my employment with Modular Robotics, I’ve been hearing production staff talk about the process of getting a stencil printer with great enthusiasm. Someone talked to the vendor and mentioned that a stencil printer had been found for a good price on my second or third day here. Then, there was work involved to determine price and how to get it here. More talk of the much-anticipated stencil printer the next week in order to plan going to see it, get a basic training on running it, and make sure it worked. It’s been mentioned in our daily staff meeting roughly once a week, for one reason or another, for the last 12 weeks. But the thing that caused MY ears to perk up was when someone casually mentioned, “Yeah, when we load in a new piece of equipment, we rent a forklift. Wanna drive it? It’s fun.”

Now, don’t get me wrong, the stencil printer is a sleek and space-age-looking piece of machinery. I don’t want to diminish the importance of this piece of machinery that’s been awaited so eagerly. ( I have it on good authority that we’ll be blogging about all of the wonderful things it will mean for the incremental upgrade of Cubelets production in the very near future.) But, a stencil printer sits in one place and a forklift not only GOES but lifts things. I cannot tell a lie – I was pretty dern excited about the forklift. Especially after hearing about it for weeks! As it turns out, I didn’t get to drive it (and you’ll see why), but never fear, I know we’ll rent a forklift again. And in the meantime, our forklift fun illustrates some of the things I most adore about working here – the creative and entrepreneurial impulse to just jump in and try things, our collaborative problem solving culture, and our seemingly boundless ability to laugh at ourselves.

Enjoy a re-cap of our stencil printer delivery and forklift fun via these pictures and captions –  it was an interesting week.

April 14, 2013 – On the day before the stencil printer arrived . . .
It started snowing like it meant business, but this deterred no one from cleaning up our factory floor . . . and then jumping in our new dumpster.

April 15th – The Stencil Printer arrived!
And it made Matthew happy. And this was good.

By April 19th, more people had thoughts on what we could do with the forklift.
Such as lifting things up on high and then dropping them with a clamor.

Of course, we’d all forgotten that all of the snow from earlier in the week melted, transforming our lawn into a silent trap for the mighty, but heavy, forklift.

Sadly, our friend the forklift was stuck. But we were good-natured about it, assuming that with all our combined skill-sets we could solve this dilemma. Surely, with the number of engineers here alone, that would take care of it!

We tried pushing the forklift out in two different ways.
It turns out forklifts weigh more than 2 tons! (Who knew!) So, these efforts were in vain.

We tried lifting it UP (Go, go gadget pallet jack!)

And weighing it DOWN (Hi Carl! Hi Michael!)

These attempts were to no avail. So, in a last ditch effort, we tried “polo-malletting” wood under the tires.

We tried lots of things, and though our character building was great, and our critical thinking well-honed, our friend the forklift was still stuck. In the end, the answer was simple.

 Call the tow truck!

 

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