Monday, March 14, 2011

FIRST Robotics: Building Community Through Competition

Anyone who thinks being nerdy isn’t cool has never attended a FIRST Robotics competition.  Last week I had the privilege of attending such an event with my son and his robotics team, 801 Team Horsepower, and what I witnessed not only impressed me, but simply blew my mind.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is an organization that wishes to foster in today’s youth an interest for science, engineering and technology skills, while building life skills such as self-confidence, communication and leadership.  Each year FIRST devises a game in which teams can compete.  Each team must design, build and program a robot that can best accomplish the goals of the game.  This year’s game, called Logo Motion, required teams to score points by placing inner tubes of different shapes on a variety of pegs and using  “mini-bots” to climb to the tops of a poles.

The particular event I attended was a regional event held in the arena of a local college campus.  Sixty teams of varying sizes attended the event.  A typical team consists of students representing multiple schools (including homeschooled students) and their mentors (teachers, parents, and members of the science and technology community).  While most of the teams were based in Florida, a few came from other states and territories, including Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Alabama, California, and Puerto Rico.  The competition lasted three days, with one day of practice and two days of competition.

Now, in high school I was a member of the marching band and attended many football games.  I have to be honest.  When it comes to team spirit and overall energy/excitement, this robotics event easily put any Friday night football game to shame.  For starters, teams adopted unique nicknames, such as RoboCats, Purple Haze, Children of the Swamp, MARS (Mega Awesome Robotics Systems), Nijaneers, Knight & Nerdy, Krunch, Megatronic Maniacs, Radioactive Roaches and my personal favorite, Exploding Bacon.  Each team wore team colors, dressed up in costume, dyed their hair their team colors or expressed their team spirit in any number of other ways.  They had their own unique cheers and engaged each other in “Spirit Challenges.”  (We got spirit, yes we do.  We got spirit, how ‘bout you?)  Mascots?  Yep, they had ‘em.  Horses, moose, ninjas, pirates, tigers, bears, featureless purple people and a multitude of other colorful characters could be seen roaming the arena.  Popular music played constantly and everyone was encouraged to participate in crowd wide games and activities.  (Though they did have trouble starting the “Wave”.  They can build working robots, but they had difficulty raising and lowering their hands in a sequential manner.)  And when the matches were played, the excitement multiplied!

But as you watch these kids and learn about them you begin to realize that the actual competition isn’t what’s important to these teams.  The competition is second to something much more lasting:  Community.  The FIRST community.  Each team’s local community.  The world community.

What became evident to me was the sense of family these teams had.  When they got together they didn’t view each other as the enemy.  Instead, they saw each other as friends who haven’t seen each other in a long time.  I wrote earlier about Sprit Challenges, but just as common was one team encouraging another or participating in that team’s cheer.  Team Krunch didn’t win the Team Spirit award, but in my opinion they should have.  They came to the event with signs in the shapes of various letters and numbers.  Throughout the three days they would honor other teams by spelling out that team’s name or number (often through creative methods of altering the individual signs to create the necessary symbols).  Another way community was built among teams was in the pits.  If one team needed assistance with programming or a tool to fix a robot, other teams were willing to lend a hand.  In fact, my son’s team, Horsepower, lent their spare mini-bot to another team whose mini-bot was damaged, thus allowing that team to compete more effectively.  It was about helping for the benefit of all, not hindering for the benefit of yourself.

During the awards ceremony I learned how a sense of community went beyond the confines of the individual teams’ schools and spilled into the neighborhoods these students live in.  Many teams were involved in community projects, such as mentoring younger students interested in the sciences, helping in nursing homes, raising money for charitable organizations, giving blood, serving meals to the homeless and the list goes on.  And the teams didn’t take time off from their community service during the regional event, either.  Team Exploding Bacon circulated piggy banks to collect money for the Red Cross’ efforts in helping Japan recover from the recent disasters they endured.

Finally, the career a student chooses may have an effect on the global community.  I can think of few fields that have more potential to change the world than that of science and technology.  Advances in robotics, programming and engineering can help the lives of people all over the globe.  The science and technology industry realizes this and fully backs FIRST teams through means of sponsorships.  Names such as Harris, NASA, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Honeywell, AutoDesk and others were listed over and over again as sponsors of teams and the event itself. (Even JC Penny got in on the action.)  In addition, these companies have provided over $14 Million in scholarships through the FIRST program.  These companies are targeting these students and marketing themselves to them, hoping to hire them in the future.  How many NFL teams show an interest in a high school football game, let alone invite every player on the field to come play with them?  I’ll let you answer that one.

I am proud to be a parent of a FIRST student.  If you have a child that shows an interest in mechanics, engineering, computer programming, electronics or just having a positive effect on their community and the world, I would strongly advise that you seek out a FIRST team in your local area.  From what I can see, it is an experience that will help them throughout their lives.  Check out FIRST at:

http://www.usfirst.org/

And here's a small taste of the competion from a Horsepower point of view.

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