My First FIRST: The FIRST Robotics World Championship
It’s the night of the big game. From the locker room you can hear the crowd maintain a steady roar that almost hums like television static in the background. You’re focused and your mind is in the zone. Final preparations are made before you finally take that slow-motion walk out of the entry tunnel and set foot on the stadium floor to a crowd of 20,000+ people, each one of them waiting intently to see what you’re capable of. This is the big show. The moment you’ve dreamed of as a kid… Only, you are a kid, and this isn’t the Superbowl, it’s the FIRST Robotics World Championship.
What is the point of FIRST? Well…
"To transform our culture by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and technology leaders."
Dean Kamen, Founder
Yeah, that’s the same Dean Kamen that famously invented the Segway and a number of other significantly well-known engineering marvels. FIRST, however, is his legacy.
Where dreams of stadium stardom once only existed for those lucky enough to maintain an athletic career through early adulthood, young children, from elementary through high school, wedged their way into the competitive spotlight and swarmed the Edward Jones Dome, home of the St. Louis Rams, and although basketball was the highlight of the event, this wasn’t an athletic contest, but rather an academic challenge of innovation.
I was given the pleasure of experiencing this event alongside a number of the most brilliant kids I’ve ever met, and I do mean brilliant. One student’s biggest problem in life is deciding what technical college to attend with her engineering scholarships. You can’t toss a bolt in this place without hitting a genius kid. They’re everywhere!
Teams from around the world gather to see who can build the best robot for accomplishing a specific task, and this year was playing some B-ball. Shooting hoops isn’t all either. A well performing robot is key, yes, but the politics of team alignment and the process of scouting each have their own subdivision of intricacy that are equally as important as how well your machine can scoop up a ball and fling it into a net. That’s right, there are social skills involved too. This isn’t the typical nerd gathering that stereotypes have painted in the past. These kids are cool and they know that they will be your boss one day.
Hundreds of teams scurried around me to prepare for their next match, make last minute adjustments and documented other team’s performance for quick reference. This sounds like the work of a government agency (and operates with more efficiency), but much to my surprise, this is standard procedure that is constantly being refined. It’s not just the high school kids either. FIRST incorporates multiple leagues and brackets for different age groups. The FLL (FIRST Lego League), The FTC (FIRST Tech Challenge) and the FRC (FIRST Robotics Competition) are all gathered together under the same roof dome to engage in organized tiered competition. Also, if learning to engineer the machines of tomorrow doesn’t impress you enough, they also conduct simultaneous side projects to solve world problems, this year’s theme revolving around issues with the preservation of food and coming up with the solution to address them. They also give out cool stickers.
Vendors from all around the globe flock to this event as well, all with the intention of feeding this machine and keeping their minds open to the endless avenues that academics and creativity have to offer them in the future. The Google Lunar X PRIZE education team was representing the MoonBots challenge, a collaboration with LEGO, to engage kids from 9-17 to form a team, film a video about lunar exploration and solve a series of challenges using a LEGO Mindstorms robot, which is what the FLL kids start their robotics training with anyway so it’s essentially off season practice for everyone.
I had a chance to sit with three students from team 68 who gave me a rundown of the meta-politics of robotics in about an hour. Bright little lamps, Erik, Elizabeth and Jacob proudly stated that their lives were turned around by joining FIRST and, by age 15, have figured out their future better than I can plan out next week.
There was also the case of team 1717, which I stumbled upon by chance. Their coach, Amir Abo, was kind enough to let me lurk around his team’s digs and summoned some enthusiastic students to show me the ropes. Much to my surprise, this team has an entire book written about them (The New Cool) and as team member Nick De Heras pointed out some of the team’s technical particulars it was abundantly clear what made this team “book-worthy”.
Teams stopped to stare and inspect the masterpiece that was the 1717 robot. As Nick pointed out “it’s like we’re celebrities around here… I’m not used to it.” You see, this whole school revolves around preparing students to join Robotics their senior year, which means everyone on the team is a rookie. That doesn’t matter. The students are so well disciplined and their mentors are so passionate about the program that the team is top ranked every year. All eyes are on them and they approach it with absolute humility. As a matter of fact, I noticed that every team followed a similar blueprint. Parents, teachers and past students return year after year to engage these kids, and offer them guidance in order to see them succeed. Essentially, everyone works together to secure a solid future of bright and enthusiastic young minds. It’s much more of lifestyle than a pastime.
It didn’t take very long for me to realize the power of the FIRST program. Every single kid I met that weekend made me feel good about the way future generations would be shaping our world. With the overabundance of negative studies being conducted on education levels in the United States, FIRST stands as a beacon of hope and solid evidence that programs that focus academics can succeed in capturing the attention of the youth, with staggering numbers to prove it. If I had kids, you could bet that I’d have them playing with LEGOs from the moment they developed their motor skills. Until that day comes, the best I can do is promote this program and other academic programs like FIRST in hopes that we can push the Dean Kamen legacy of “work hard now, enjoy the future later”.
Who knows? Maybe these kids will be the ones who design the fail safe to prevent the robot apocalypse. Here’s hoping.