19 January 2010—Look out, sports fans. Here come the robots! On January 9, at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, in Brooklyn, 37 area high school teams joined hundreds of other teams via satellite feed to find out what this year's FIRST robotics challenge would be. Courtesy of NASA, the kickoff event was piped in live to 57 locations around the world from Manchester, N.H., where FIRST is based.
FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is a high school robotics competition founded 18 years ago by inventor Dean Kamen, who wanted to use the sports and entertainment model to get kids excited about science and technology. His idea was "to steal from the playbook of sports…to change the perception of a whole generation of kids." Each year, a new design challenge tests budding engineers' creativity, skills, and teamwork.
For the next six weeks, more than 1800 high school teams from 12 countries—including 278 first-time teams—will work with a kit that includes motors, batteries, a control system, a PC, and various other components. The rest of the work, from designing to building to testing the robot, is up to them. At the end of the six weeks, FedEx will ship 180 tons of robot to regional destinations around the United States, Canada, and Israel for the first round of competition. The championship games will be held in April at Atlanta's Georgia Dome.
As a former FIRST participant myself, I was thrilled to be back in the arena. Rookie teams and old hands rubbed elbows during Saturday's registration, then gathered in the auditorium for the kickoff. After a good hour and a half of speeches (with kids getting understandably fidgety toward the end), this year's game, called Breakaway, was revealed. The goal: to make a robot that will kick or roll balls into a goal while navigating bumps in an 8.2- by 16.4-meter field. Two "alliances" of three teams each will face off during each round of competition. This adds to the challenge, as teams have to cooperate with some robots while avoiding or overcoming others. Extra points will be awarded to robots that are able to climb onto or hang from two platforms in the field at the end of the game.
Kamen, FIRST national advisor Woodie Flowers, kickoff sponsors, and politicians all reminded the kids that FIRST is not just about building a robot or winning at any cost. It's about building confidence, solving problems, working as a team, expanding career opportunities, and growing relationships with adult mentors. "Gracious professionalism" and "coopertition" were much discussed—a reminder that while the teams compete on the field, they are really working together behind the scenes.
Kamen told students, "Ten years from now, you won't remember which robot won which event." But, he added, "one of those students will have done something that created a solution to a global problem, maybe because they were inspired by [FIRST]. That, the world will never forget."
To emphasize gracious professionalism, the top FIRST award, called the Chairman's Award, goes not to the last robot standing but to the team that has the most community impact, whether by mentoring rookie teams, working with younger students on robotics projects, or increasing awareness of science and technology in its local community. While only "one or two robots will win," Kamen emphasized, "every human participant has to win." He didn't mean the "every kid gets a medal" kind of winning but the "developing skills for life" kind of winning.
The students I spoke with already seemed to be learning those lessons. A student from last year's New York regional champs, the Queens Vocational & Technical High School, said his team was able to win because it had "good teamwork. We understood what we had to do, and we did it." While their mentor was their shop teacher, assistant principal Anthony Ali, not all the high schools have a shop class. But that doesn't deter them from setting up a classroom with a few power tools.
That's the case for rookie team Hunter College High School, mentored by math and computer science teacher Carolyn Mayadas. She says the students came to her wanting to get involved in FIRST. Team vice president Matt Wong, a junior, found FIRST on a Web site, then joined up with junior Connor Yamada, team president, who has been working on a robotics hobby club for the past couple of years. "It's hard, because the [learning] curve's a little high, but programs like FIRST make it easier" to get people interested, Yamada says. The students wrote grants, got parents involved, and took on a FIRST alum, who is a current NYU math student, as an additional advisor. Team member Anna Gasha says that while she doesn't have any robotics experience, she's interested in the field, and "FIRST is a good opportunity to see what it's all about."
While the rookies didn't know what to expect from the challenge, they were excited to get started. "We don't expect to win," Wong says, "but we want to build something that works, something that's well made."
Many veteran teams, on the other hand, were already deep into strategy on kickoff day. They'd been mulling over clues rationed out before the kickoff, trying to determine if this year's robot would require pressure sensors, hinges, pneumatics, or none of the above.
A veteran all-girls team called the Fe (Iron) Maidens, from the Bronx High School of Science, was on hand to discuss its strategy. Team captain Qurat-ul-ain Ali, who plans to become a biomedical engineer, says that while last year her team decided to build a defending robot, this year they want to go on the offensive. The team's 30-odd girls were ready to meet at their cocaptain's house after the kickoff to discuss the problem and decide their basic design by Monday. That would maximize their time for building and testing, as well as give them time to "scout" other teams, finding weaknesses they could exploit or potential allies they might want to invite into their alliance.
After working on smaller-scale Lego robotics projects in middle school, Ali started participating in FIRST during her freshman year of high school. It was the first year her school formed an all-girls team, and while there is also a coed team at the school, she's glad she picked the Iron Maidens. It was "a good idea in retrospect," she says. "I wouldn't be in the position I'm in now…and I wouldn't have been able to work on the robot as much." A lot of coed teams have two or three girls, she explains, but they're often in the public relations branch. (Yes, some teams have PR people.) "They don't get to play with the robot as much," she says.
And she loves to play. Her favorite tools are the lathe, grinder, mill, drill press, and hacksaw. She loves "seeing the sparks fly." As for programming and electronics design, she leaves that up to her fellow teammates.
A rookie all-girls team from the Mary Louis Academy, a Catholic school for girls, is also joining the NYC-area competition this year, mentored by science teacher Vinod Lala. A graduate of the school got them involved, according to Lala. About 15 girls are on the team, mostly sophomores who are strong in math and science. "We don't have a whole shop," Lala says, "but other teams do a lot with less than we have." He is confident that they'll do just fine. They're just trying to get a feel for it, he says. The girls have been building small robots and programming so far, Lala says, but "they saw all these 5-foot, 100-pound robots running around, and they wanted to make their own. They want to build something."
According to Lala, another school is serving as an official mentor to his students, which illustrates the "gracious professionalism" tenet of Kamen's FIRST competition. Teams help each other out "because they want to go up against the best," Lala says.
As a bonus, FIRST competition winners will get to take a trip to the White House. Part of the kickoff presentation included a video of President Obama watching a FIRST robot roll around his pressroom. He told his audience that just as NCAA champions get to visit the White House, so too will science and math competition winners.
In the meantime, Kamen's crew repeated its mantra to students: "It's not about the robot."
But for the next six weeks, at least, I suspect it will be.