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“I want supernerds everywhere!”

Thus spoke Woodie Flowers at this year’s kickoff of the FIRST robotics competition for high school students, on 9 January.

By now, over 1800 high school teams are already deep into planning—and probably already building—for their six-week robot design challenge. As I wrote in IEEE Spectrum’s online commentary about the kickoff event, it was exciting to be there after having participated in FIRST myself for three years of high school.

One thing was obvious: the 18-year-old FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotics competition is living up to its name: inspiration.

Flowers, who is the FIRST national advisor and pretty much a FIRST mascot as well, proudly reported during the kickoff that 10 percent of this year’s freshman class at MIT is made up of FIRST alums. Four FIRST alums who spoke at the event included a web developer, a NASA flight controller, a math and science teacher, and a representative from Engineers Without Borders, which works to bring clean water and other sustainable engineering projects to developing countries.  Most commented that they wouldn’t have thought about careers in engineering if not for joining their high school FIRST teams.

FIRST has in fact ballooned from hosting a single competition for high school kids to sponsoring projects for younger students as well, in the form of Lego Leagues (ages 9-14) and junior Lego Leagues (ages 6-9). These start kids out working with programmable Lego kits. In high school they can move on to the robotics competition (“the varsity sport for the mind,” as it’s advertised on the FIRST website) or a similar brain-stretching Tech Challenge, which is completed with smaller teams.

“I’ve talked about nerd pride, and nerd nouveau,” Flowers told thousands of students worldwide, via satellite feed, at the kickoff. Now, he said, it’s “supernerds.” In other words, ”people who know a lot about a lot, who think hard and creatively, who love continuing to learn. I want them in the hospital… designing legislation, serving society,” he said. Yes, he wants them everywhere.

I, for one, was inspired. And judging by the cheers from students, parents, teachers, and mentors, I wasn't the only one.

From our coverage of the kickoff:

[FIRST founder Dean] 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."

I can attest to that, having graduated just over ten years ago. I don’t remember what our robot looked like, or even what it was supposed to do. I do remember my teammates and my mentors, the long nights at our sponsor company, Lennox, using power tools and designing electronics, even our team song (Tubthumping from Chumbawamba). My teammates are now engineers, doctors, and government employees, to name just a few. All are gracious professionals. Woodie Flowers would be proud.

Image courtesy of FIRST. Foreground Woodie Flowers; background Dean Kamen.

The Conversation (0)

The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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