If Only Snooki Had Learned to Use Power Tools

In today’s celebrity culture it’s easy to appreciate why the average teenager might believe their only options in life are MTV or the NBA. Introducing children to new experiences and perspectives can redefine how they perceive themselves and their role within society.

FIRST Robotics Competition aims to break through cultural stereotypes and put the cool back into engineering and science. Each year high school teams from all over the United States and around the world are tasked with building a robot from a kit of parts that will be able to perform a specific set of tasks in competition. The national playoffs take place late April in St. Louis.

Last Friday and Saturday saw the Seattle Cascades and Olympic Regionals at Qwest Field, Seattle, Washington (right in my backyard). I was lucky enough to be able to get a firsthand look at the competition. Entering Qwest Field I couldn’t help but be taken aback by the sheer number of people and astounding noise level. The competition was well underway by the time I showed up mid-morning Friday and the energy level was high. The field—cordoned off into three sections, two arenas for the Seattle Cascades and Olympic playoffs and one huge pit nestled in between—was teaming with kids and their robots.

Although crowds of spectators gathered in the stands to watch the matches, the real action was in the pits (think NASCAR). Students rapidly refined their bots and fixed unexpected problems in a surprising display of cooperation, comradeship and mutual respect.

“You have to remember that we ship our robot to the event and we might not see it for a week or more, it’s only in the pits that we are reunited and then it’s a time crunch to make final adaptations and fix anything that may have broken en route,” says Jillian Andrews, a sophomore at Tahoma High School and Senior Fabricator on her team called Bear Metal. “It’s really down to the wire, but it teaches us to work closely as a group to get things done.”

Andrews, who wants to go into the medical profession, is one of the many young women competing in FIRST who says the competition has given her a sense of self confidence, leadership skills and the technical knowledge to compete in an area traditionally dominated by men.

Taylor Dowel, on the same team as Andrews, was hands-on in the pit giving directions to her fellow teammates. When prompted, she gave a five-minute briefing on her bot, including how the chassis, lift, claw, deployment system and mini-bot work. “We all have different jobs on the team. I run the CNC mill, I like doing all the machining and the hands-on stuff,” Dowel says.

When asked about her favorite part of the FIRST Robotics Competition Andrews says, “Working with top engineers from Boeing and the like is a privilege and an eye opener. FIRST has taught me that I can do anything—that I don’t have to limit myself because I am a girl.”

Boeing, like PTC, is an industry sponsor of FIRST. Conrad Ball, Washington FIRST Executive Advisory Board Chair and Chief Engineer at Boeing Military Aircraft, attended the Washington regionals. “I see the importance of attracting the best and brightest talent if we are to remain competitive in the global economy,” he says.

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Each of the competing teams has mentors—teachers, parents and industry professionals—who volunteer their time to advise and support the kids in building their robots. Mentors believe FIRST is valuable in teaching young people the relevance of science and technology in their daily lives through hands-on experiences and real results. “Kids ask what is this algebra, trigonometry and science for anyway? All we have to do is regurgitate it on tests,” says a Franklin High School mentor. “Well, here they are able to put it to practice on robots.” Franklin High School, sponsored by PTC, was a competition finalist and winner of the Innovation in Control Award at the Washington event.

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The brainchild of Dean Kamen, FIRST Robotics Competition is fundamentally changing the way young people view science and technology. Kamen believes that exposing young people to professional scientists and engineers changes what they do and where they put their time and attention. “The probability that one of [these kids] is going to do something spectacular that they would not have done without FIRST is almost a guarantee.” Kamen says.

Sound too good to be true? Just ask Google co-founder, Larry Page whose dad smuggled him into a robotics competition when he was 12, or ask one of the many students who attended the Seattle playoffs this weekend and who’ll be starting MIT in the fall.

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