A tad late getting this posted, but I am recently back from St. Louis where I attended the 2011 FIRST Championships – April 27-30 at the Edward Jones Dome. For those of you that don’t know about FIRST - you should! FIRST is an organization started by famous inventor Dean Kamen and stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science andTechnology”. It is basically THE super bowl of science competitions focused around robotics for 6-18 year olds! They have 4 “leagues“; Jr. FLL, FLL, FTC, and FRC. And – this is where the geeks rule supreme!!!
- Jr. FLL is for grades K-3 (Ages 6-9) and introduces kids to science and technology by using LEGO® bricks and LEGO WeDo robotics sets to build a motorized model that meets a specific challenge.
- FLL – FIRST LEGO League – is for grades 4-8 (Ages 9-14) and immerses kids in real-world science and technology challenges. Teams build LEGO-based robots (using LEGO Mindstorms kits) and develop research projects.
- FTC – FIRST Tech Challenge – is for grades 9-12 (Ages 14-18) and is designed for those who want to compete head-to-head using a sports model. Teams of up to 10 students are responsible for designing, building, and programming their robots to compete in an alliance format against other teams.
- FRC – FIRST Robotics Competition – is for grades 9-12 (Ages 14-18) and combines the excitement of a sports competition with the rigors of science and technology. Under strict rules, limited resources, and time limits, teams of 25 students or more are challenged to raise funds, design a team “brand,” hone teamwork skills, and build and program a robot to perform prescribed tasks against a field of competitors. As close to real world engineering as you can without being a real engineer!
The real goal here isn’t really a robotics competition…the goal is to inspire kids about science and technology and show them science can be fun and cool…and very in-line with Intel and Intel Learning Series…robotics is a vehicle to do that. FIRST does a fantastic job of doing that – let me take you on the journey I had at the competition.
Intel is actually a supplier and a sponsor for FIRST. Our Intel powered classmate PCs have been the recommended standard for the driver stations in the FRC league, will be bundled as a standard for FLL and Jr. FLL for the upcoming season and we will also see them show up soon in the FTC league. Additionally, Intel and Intel employees donate their time and money sponsoring, mentoring, and coaching teams…and it is really fun to get involved! These kids are doing some amazing things!
So I arrive at the Edward Jones Dome – home of the Rams – and register for the event. As a sponsor, we are invited as a special guest – which gives me some nice perks, like unfettered access to the pit and competition floor and well as some great networking opportunities…unfortunately I am not here JUST for fun – I do have work to do and that means meetings…8^) But I am there early and my first meeting isn’t for a few hours so I explore a bit.
As I walk through the pit area, which is broken down by league, I realize it is really where the teams have a “home base” and can work on and tweak their robots…they also have practice areas for them to run through testing a real match. I stroll through the different zones and see some amazing work! These robots are cool, complex, and truly “engineered” -I realize these kids are really the future engineers of our society and they are made up of all kinds of different people.
After I amaze myself with the work in the pit area, I stumble upon the Dome arena where the competitions are going on. Right now they are running the qualification matches for the finals in the next couple days. The FRC league is having their robots pick up and construct FIRST logos with blow up shapes and then they have to launch a “runner” robot up a pole. They do this by working together with three teams on each side. The first part of the match is totally autonomous and the robot has to hang a single orange circle all by itself. Some don’t (usually rookie teams) and some even look for others dropped ones to hang two! Pretty neat. Then they operate in a tele-operated mode where the driver uses his classmate PC controller and remotes their robots to finish the mission…truly amazing engineering here. In the FTC matches they have the same autonomous/tele-operated modes and also work in teams…they have to pick up and place batons in small carts. Also balancing on ramps is extra points. FLL is running missions as bio-engineers having the fix broken bones, place a pacemaker, and inject a syringe. The tasks each group has to do is really imaginative and challenging.
What I took away from this was these kids are doing real engineering because they are given a very challenging task that they have to complete with a limited budget, not enough time – real world time constraints, and having to effectively work as a team! This is a great place to find future employees!!! The second thing I took away – and was rather surprised by – was the number of girls participating! It was so cool to see all girl teams and mixed teams…girls getting a bigger interest in science is very cool! The last general observation I had was that “Geeks” (which I am one of) rule here!!! Everyone was being themselves and were superstars! They dressed up in funky costumes that showed team spirit, they all out had a fun time in an environment that promoted that being a geek is totally cool – which it is! Even Will.i.am from the Black-Eyed Peas was here (and recent Intel employee!). He saw FIRST and called Dean Kamen up to see how to get involved…see Will.i.am is a big tinkerer and loves robots and LEGOs and technology! I also heard the Dean asked him to help make FIRST and technology cool and Will.i.am said – “Dean, FIRST is already COOL – I will help make it LOUD!!!” That he did, him and the Black Eyed Peas treated us to a concert Friday night that was part of a special being filmed where Will.i.am and other artists will show that FIRST and Science is cool – look for it on ABC August 14th at 7:00pm!
I also had the chance to talk with a bunch of teams – here are some cool things I talked about with a couple of notable teams:
The first team was an FTC team from Folsom, CA – where I live. This team, the PHEONIXTRIX (FTC Team 3509) is a very cool team. The coach, Rathish (A good friend and fellow Intel employee), has really done amazing things with this team. He has his team mentor younger teams, reach out to the community and does things to promote science in schools. In addition, his team was also picked by the Director of FTC league (Ken Johnson) to help build a robot for Will.i.am and also got to go to his studio train him how to drive it. They even did a video about their adventure with Will.i.am and played it during the concert…it was really cool!
The other team was an FRC team and is from Portland, OR named Trout Lake (Team 3711). This team had an interesting story – they come from a school of seventy students! They worked VERY hard to get here – they were the only Rookie team in the Galileo Division to qualify as a regional winner (Oregon Regionals). It was a tough ride to get here – alot of rookie mistakes, but their hard work payed off as some other teams noticed them and partnered with them, they were able to pull off winning the regionals. To get to the championships, they had to pay their own way by collecting scrap metal – 40,000 pounds of it! But they made it and did well! Good job!
So – I know this is a lot of detail, but to me, this was a really exciting event that I am glad Intel is involved with – both from the product side and also the coaching and mentoring side! I think it is important to support more types of these things as part of our kid’s education. Some of the data I heard form one of my meetings with the FIRST team was that kids that participate on a FIRST team are 3 times more likey to go to college and 2 times more likely to major in a technology/engineering major! This is GREAT ROI…so my mission for you is to go out and figure out how to get more involved in FIRST – from coaching a team, being a mentor, to getting a FIRST team setup in your kid’s school! Help me get more technology integrated into kid’s education and schools!!!
In closing, everybody always looks up for sports figures and entertainers – sometimes I wonder why – well, for the sake of America, we need our youth to start looking up to other role models – scientists and engineers! We have lost our innovation edge and we need it back…this is just the first step!