The 2012 FIRST Championship Gives Hope for STEM Education

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The St. Louis Rams play football in a dome located just off the banks of the Mississippi River. On Sunday afternoons every autumn, the facility is packed with screaming fans watching one of our most physical sports: armored athletes pushing, hitting, and tackling with every fast twitch muscle fiber in their bodies. But last weekend, in the same giant arena and on the same floor, fans gathered to cheer and scream as thirty thousand children battled with their minds.

Once again, St. Louis was host to the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Championship, an event that features the best of nearly a quarter million participants. The teams hail from 56 countries and every state and the Championship is a culmination of months of hard work, but more accurately, a celebration of achievement in STEM education.

A segment of bleachers had been removed from one side of the dome, along the same meridian on the field where the ball is kicked off to begin football games, revealing a huge hallway that links the floor of the dome to the nearby convention hall. That cavernous room was filled with small cubes that serve as pits for the teams. It was a beehive of activity. Teams were dressed in clothes as colorful as the rainbow (and oftentimes with hair to match), parading about and singing team songs, ferrying robots to and from competition, and milling about their garages where machines were fine-tuned or time between matches was killed.

The FIRST 2012 Championship, like others before it, was broken into four different competitions. For the youngest competitors, those between the ages of 6 and 9, competition takes place in the Jr. FIRST Lego League (JrFLL). Here, kids explored challenges facing scientists and build Lego models related to their challenge, while working on their presentation skills. The next step up, for kids 9 to 16, is the FIRST Lego League (FLL). For this competition, an autonomous robot was built using Lego Mindstorms. Children were also asked to become involved in their local and global community through outreach projects and science was studied in earnest.

High school kids had two competitions they could enter to learn more about robotics, programming, and engineering. The FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) is similar, in ways, to the junior varsity. Teams are smaller and competition features head-to-head events, including alliances among teams, and FTC teams build robots based on the Tetrix platform. At the top is the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC), which represents the closest thing to “real world” engineering kids can find. With a limited amount of time (and resources), teams work with professional engineers and mentors to design original robots.

This year, both the JrFLL’s and FLL’s competition involved food safety. The Junior competition was tasked with learning more about their favorite snack foods and discovering how to prepare and store them without contamination. After developing a presentation, teams created a model related to their snack using Lego bricks. Some teams used robotics, but it wasn’t a requirement.

FLL teams were asked to research a problem related to food safety and develop a solution. They were then asked to reach out to their community and present their findings. Some incredible ideas were developed during this part of the competition. (Editor’s note: Check back later this week for more on these remarkable kids.) The FLL’s game, “Food Factor,” required teams to create an autonomous robot that could accomplish a series of tasks related to food safety in a very short period of time. Teams could change out their robots’ accessories, to attempt more than a dozen goals — from harvesting corn to pest removal (corn and pests were of the plastic brick varieties) — but the time allotted forced teams to pick and choose the tasks they wished to accomplish.

The FTC’s game was called “Bowled Over” and involved two bowling balls, 100 racquetballs and a dozen stackable crates. Each contest began with a 30-second autonomous period when the teams tried to push a bowling ball into a corner; the remainder of the game allowed participants to control their robots. After taking control, teams tried to stack crates on their robots and collect racquetballs in the crates. Near the conclusion of the game, teams used a variety of approaches to lift the baskets into the air. For distances above ten and a half feet, teams received points.

Finally, the FRC competed in a game called “Rebound Rumble.” On a playing field reminiscent of a basketball court (but with a half dozen more basketball goals and a few tipping bridges) each team of three robots attempts to score baskets. In this year’s contest, defense seemed difficult to play. Perhaps it was because seemingly fewer teams created defensive robots or because there were more points to be earned by shooting baskets, offensive robots ruled the day. Many teams sank free throw after free throw with the accuracy of Rick Barry.

The amazing thing was that – win or lose – spirits were always high, attitudes were positive and everyone was having a very good time. Walking among the teams in the pits, it was difficult to not catch some of their enthusiasm; it was that infectious. Much is made about the deficits of students engaged in engineering and technology in our schools, but at the FIRST Championship it was easy to forget, if only for a little while.

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