For four days last week, some of the smartest, most creative and innovative kids got together in St. Louis for camaraderie, competition and more than just a little fun during the annual FIRST Championship. The competition, which attracted more than 11,000 students competing on nearly 600 teams from 29 different countries, was the culmination of months of funding, designing, building and competing with robots and was unlike anything you’ll see anywhere else. In a word, it was awesome.
FIRST was founded by Dean Kamen as a way to get kids involved in STEM careers and, judging by the crowd in St. Louis, that mission is going quite well. Young people, between the ages of 6 and 18, compete in four divisions. For the youngest, ages 6 to 9, there’s the Jr. FIRST Lego League. This year’s competition required the Jr. FLL kids to discover how biomedical engineering helps others. They used Lego bricks to construct a moving model of a tool or machine that assists people and created some support materials to explain their invention.
For kids from ages 9 to 16, there’s the FLL or FIRST Lego League. For the 2011 competition, these teams built robots from Lego Mindstorms kits that accomplished a wide variety of simulated medical tasks like medicine dispensing and nerve mapping. Teams had to accomplish as many goals as they could in a short 2 1/2 minute round.
Ashwin, a first year member of the FLL team SAP RoboPundits from Bangalore, India, says that FLL is “the best part of my life. I play a minimal role in the robotics, but in the presentation and the project management, I play a major part. I’ve taken up biotechnology as higher studies, so I’m sure that [FIRST] is going to play a major role in that.”
For older, high school kids, there are two options: the FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) or the major league — the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC). For both competitions, teams compete in an alliance with other teams operating in both offensive and defensive capacities. For the FTC competition, the theme was “Get Over It.” The goal was to collect PVC batons from horizontal dispensing stations and deposit them in rolling vertical goals. Competition began with 40 seconds of autonomous play before players took over and used remote controls for the remaining two minutes. The playing area was obstructed with pivoting bridges, ramps and rumble strips and there were a variety of ways to score points.
One of several Dutch teams in St. Louis, Lords of the Screws, competed in the FTC competition. Team member Koen said, “We participated in FLL the year before. I like the cooperation and teamwork and working with technology.” But what about the actual work? “I most like building the robot and chassis,” Koen begins before grinning and finishing “… and I like the programming a little less.”
More than half of all teams in the competition participated in the FRC. In a short six weeks, FRC teams built robots to the specification of this year’s competition, “Logo Motion.” Again, two teams of alliances competed against each other in a race to hang inflated shapes on a vertical metal grid. Hanging pieces that mirrored the FIRST logo earned bonus points. FRC rounds also featured a short, 15 second autonomous round, followed by two minutes of player control. At the end of each match, teams had the option of deploying a minibot to climb a pole to earn extra points.
The “pits” for the teams were tiny eight foot booths lined up row after row on the convention hall floor, like countless garages, where repairs were done and gremlins worked out. The lush, padded carpet and booth swag that the convention center is accustomed to had been replaced by award banners from previous wins, hex wrenches and laptops for tweaking code. Some teams had decorated their booths to match their team’s mascot or just to create a good-time atmosphere.
There was an incredible sense of camaraderie. Teams paraded down aisles, shouting out a cheer or singing a song and there were smiles all around. Whether it was matching t-shirts, army fatigues or coveralls, many teams chose to dress alike in a uniform. Some opted for zany hats and lots of kids (and adults) went crazy with their hair. There seemed to be an unspoken contest to see who could force their hair to stand in the biggest mohawk. Above all else, the teams were serious about button trading and collecting. Some kids walked around with shirts completely covered with buttons.
Still, even in this competitive group, the spirit of friendship crossed team lines. When a team couldn’t find an extra part, a request went over the loudspeaker requesting help. Within minutes, several other teams came to the rescue. It’s difficult to imagine this sort of esprit de corps in any other competition, but the FIRST teams interaction can be traced back to one of the organizations core values, something they refer to as “gracious professionalism.”
Gracious Professionalism operates on the notion that fierce competition and mutual gain aren’t separate notions. What FIRST teaches kids is that they can compete at the highest levels and still treat one another with respect and kindness. There’s no chest bumping, platitudes aren’t heard and no one is considered a loser. In the beginning, it’s difficult to believe, but it is deeply ingrained in everyone involved and it’s incredibly refreshing. (When I first arrived, I was orienting myself with a map. A team exited the hall and one of the team members, a boy about 16 years old, pulled his team aside and corrected them for yelling a little too loudly about their victory. He reminded them that wasn’t allowed and doing so made the team look bad.)
All of this talent in one place didn’t go unnoticed either. Schools from MIT to local community colleges had booths where they tried to persuade kids to attend their programs. Many partners, like National Instruments, Lego, NASA and Time Warner had booths too. Future employers like Rockwell Collins, Boeing and the armed forces also had their eyes on the kids as many of the nation’s future engineers will come from this group. To that end, FIRST also has worked with sponsors and providers to create hundreds of scholarships that are available to FIRST participants every year.
All this dedication was evident in the intensity, ingenuity and purpose of the team members. Everywhere you looked, you saw confident, composed kids working together to solve problems and achieve a common goal. And above all, they were having a great time. But had Kamen been successful in getting kids involved in STEM careers?
Exiting the competition area and dressed in pink tights, skirts and pink t-shirts, The Robettes, an all-girl team from Mendota Heights Minnesota, was difficult to miss. Katy, a fourth-year FRC participant, said, “I love FIRST. I can’t imagine my life without it, honestly. I sleep, I breathe, I drink it. It’s just everything I do and I love it because it’s a great opportunity for me to get a hands-on experience with what’s to come in a couple years for me. Next year, I’m going into engineering and I’m going to get my MBA at the same time. I plan on going into project management for engineering firms.”
If you’d like to get involved in FIRST as a team member or a volunteer, visit their site for more information.