An international school competition that’s one of the largest celebrations of STEM is FIRST Robotics. Quickly gaining popularity, FIRST Robotics (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) started out as an afterschool robotics STEM program nearly 30 years ago in high schools. An inspiration for science and technology, FIRST is an inclusive K-12 program, for students from all backgrounds and countries.
Founded in 1989 by the prolific inventor and entrepreneur, Dean Kamen, Dean has been a tireless advocate for science and technology. “I don’t use kids to build robots. I use robots to build kids,” he explained to a crowd at his SWSX featured session in 2018. With core values such as teamwork and respect, the program combines the excitement of sports with the four disciplines of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). More than 94,000 students on 3,800 teams competed during the 2019 season. 70,000 people from around the world attended the 2019 championships that takes place in Houston and Detroit, respectively.
Our Make48 co-founders, Richard Brull and Tom Gray, attended the FIRST championships. Rich has been connected with FIRST for almost 15 years and attended the Houston championship this year, while Tom was invited by the president of FIRST Robotics, Don Bossi to the Detroit championship. I spoke to both of them about their recent visit and look at the impact it has in schools.
Rich has been involved with FIRST in several different capacities including; FRC referee, safety director, coach and mentor for their Lego League, Tech Challenge and Robotics Competition. “About 8 years ago I started a FLL team with a group of fourth grade kids. They are now juniors in high school and are still together as the FTC team “Tesla’s Knights” which I coach and mentor.”
FIRST has 4 programs with the first three programs that run concurrent to the school year, allowing students to work on robotics challenges along the way. They include:
- Lego League Jr. — Introduces STEM concepts for kids ages 6-10.
- Lego League — League for students in 4th – 8th grades.
- Tech Challenge — Challenge for students in grades 7th – 12th.
- FIRST Robotics Competition — the fourth program and is focused primarily on high school students and serves as the capstone FIRST project. This challenge includes a timed element that has teams practicing their skills in the fall and then getting a challenge to solve early in the calendar year. Teams have six weeks to design and build before entering the competition phase that includes tight rules on when students can work on the project.
This past April, Rich attended the record-breaking 4 day Houston event. With more than 33,000 in attendance, it showcased over 15,000 students from the ages of 6-18. As a parent, Rich understands first-hand how the program has impacted the education sector. “FIRST is one of the best things to happen to schools in my lifetime. It provides a fun and exciting way for creative and engineering-minded students to compete and excel in the areas that they love and do well in.”
Tom Gray agrees wholeheartedly. “I’m impressed with the competitive nature of FIRST. No different than sports or business or entrepreneurship, you are often only as good as your competitor. Winning against such competition can often breed success or failure and to embed them at an early age is important.”
Tom got to see how large the Detroit Championships were this year, with a record-breaking attendance of over 40,000 attendees. More than 17,000 students from 37 countries took to the floor with their team-built robots. Tom was highly impressed by the entire event. “The Detroit championships was a world class event. This was my first championship and it was very impressive. The team pits were abuzz with competing students and mentors fine tuning their robots. It was no different than a NASCAR team tuning their cars for the final race.”
As a celebration of STEM, it’s inspiring to see students get excited about technology, innovation and leadership and there are many mentors that pave the way for the students. Tom saw first-hand how important mentoring is in their program. “FIRST shows how important and powerful mentorship can be, while leading the next generation.” Tom also noted that “to see some of the most intelligent students together as a team is impressive, however without a leading experienced mentor I think things could be different. The mentors donate considerable time and often their own resources (workshop and equipment) and should be credited more than they are.”
If you’re a parent and asking yourself should your child get involved in FIRST, Rich told me that as a parent you should, “do everything you can to support the kids getting started in FIRST. It’s far more important than any sport they may get involved in. The skills they will learn in FIRST will stay with them for life and are very likely to help them excel in college and their chosen career path. How many kids do you know that will ever get paid to play sports? …I don’t know any, but I do know kids who came through the FIRST program who are using their skills in engineering and public speaking (all learned in FIRST) as careers. FIRST is about more than just robots. It truly changes lives.”