“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.

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman
LightGreen

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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