A stadium is packed, adults and kids filling the stands and watching in anticipation. Fans loudly cheer on their team, proudly wearing their teams’ colors, while fans back home watch the game on ESPN. Both teams are vying for a guaranteed playoff spot within their division and have had a long season getting to this point. Think this is your typical sporting event? Think again. Welcome to Einstein Field during the championship event of a FIRST Robotics Competition.
FIRST Robotics is the brain-child of inventor Dean Kamen, best known for creating the Segway but whose passion lies in more philanthropic ventures. It is FIRST’s mission to “inspire young people to be science and technology leaders,” as well as to “foster well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication, and leadership.”
Each year, FIRST comes up with a different challenge in which teams compete, with names such as Ladder Logic or Diabolical Dynamics, tipping their hat to science. The game is a mystery until early January, when the game is kicked off to all the teams. From this point, teams have a total of 6 weeks to analyze the game, figure out their strategy, and then design and build a 120 lb robot to implement their strategy.
They also have to program and practice playing the game before the 6-week mark. After that, the robot is crated up and shipped off for holding until the team goes to competition. Oh, and they’ve also got a full time job as students. As far as project lifecycles go, it’s pretty tight.
As few as 5 years ago, I was a part of the FIRST team at my own high school in Southern California. I easily recall all of the long weekends, overnight lock-ins, and after school meetings it took to get the robot ready for competition. For those 6 weeks, our team nearly lived out of our club room, coming out every once in a while to eat and take tests.
I clearly remember the fruits of our labor as well, winning a regional competition and taking a trip to the Championship event my freshman and senior year. We even got to attend the first regional event to take place in Hawaii over our spring break. Being a part of FIRST was the reason I wanted to become an engineer, and consequently the reason I ended up attending Rose-Hulman out here in Indiana until I graduated this past May (with Dean Kamen delivering the keynote speech at our commencement, to top it off).
As I began my career at Bastian Automation Engineering, I was invited by a co-worker to help mentor a local team, and I have been helping them out for the past few weeks. Looking back, our team mentors were an incredible resource, making themselves available on weekends and late at night after school.
Mentors guided kids to find a solution, challenged students to take an engineering approach to problems, and encouraged innovative solutions. Mentors were in a large part responsible for the success of not only our team but of the goals put forth by FIRST, to inspire students and encourage continued education in STEM fields.
I’m glad I’ve got the opportunity to give back to a team the resources that helped to shape my own career. I’ve still got a lot to learn, but I’m excited for the opportunity. And I’m not the only one; we’ve got more than a handful of people involved in the program as mentors and contributors. I’m happy to work for a company that nurtures community involvement and outreach, providing opportunities for entire offices to go out volunteering.
If you’re interested in FIRST and want to know more, please visit their website at www.usfirst.org to find ways to volunteer at events, sponsor or mentor a team, or just find out when and where events will be held to see what the competition is all about.