FIRST Robotics Competition Kicks Off with Recycling Theme

More than robots. That was the mantra at this week’s kick-off event for the FIRST Robotics Competition held at the home of FIRST and DEKA founder Dean Kamen.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) brings more than 300,000 young people ages six to 18 together from around the globe to build robots and compete in high-tech playoffs. The competition is in its 26th year and continues to grow in popularity.

This year’s challenge is called Recycle Rush. The theme is recycling and the objective is to build a robot that can transport and stack crates and recycle bins in a field 27 by 54 feet. Robots must then be able to deposit “litter”—or pool noodles—into the recycle bins. The 2015 games will be more high-tech than ever, with a state-of-the-art sandwich-sized control system from National Instruments that provides a 500 percent performance improvement over previous years.

Teams have six weeks to build their robots, followed by a month of regional competitions. Winners of the regional games will compete at the national championship in St. Louis, MO in April.

The FIRST Robotics Competition not only provides an opportunity for school aged children to develop and hone hands-on STEM skills alongside engineers from industry giants like Boeing and NASA, it also grows confidence, and fosters leadership, teamwork, and real-world problem solving.

“The robots are a vehicle that connect kids with serious professional adults, says founder Kamen. “The kids come into the program mystified and insecure and they leave with a vision and confidence, and with the sense that they can create their own future.”

And while stacking crates and depositing pool noodles may seem like child’s play, the kid’s design concepts often find their way into serious real-world industry initiatives. For instance, FIRST robot Chainzilla, recently created by the Texas-based Robonauts, has been a critical influence in the design of NASA’s surface mobility system for carrying astronauts across the service of planets like Mars.

It’s this kind of practical experience and recognition that gets college recruiters and employers excited.

FIRST competitors have the opportunity to apply for more than $15 million worth of college scholarships—which vary from one-time awards of $500 to full four-year tuition. Scholarships are not exclusively for engineering majors, although most FIRST alumni plan to pursue careers in science and engineering.

Top colleges from across the Unites States set up at the game venues along what’s been dubbed “scholarship row” to encourage students to enroll in their degree programs.

Employers, desperate to fill the current shortfall in STEM workers, are paying attention too.

Recently, at a team reunion, mentor Mark Holschuh got to talk to several of his former students now in college. Not only did FIRST help with college placement, he say, it also helped secure jobs because of the hands-on experience gained in CAD software.

“In addition to having FIRST on their resume, having the basic training in PTC’s CAD software moved them up to the top of the hire lists for cooperatives and for permanent employees,” says Holschuh, a senior product engineer at John Deere. “There are a lot of companies in our area of Wisconsin that use PTC software, including Oshkosh Truck, Kohler Company, Mercury Marine, Mid-States Aluminum, Manitowoc Crane and John Deere.”

PTC is a strategic partner of FIRST, and a strong advocate in training the next generation of engineers.

“Robots are just a means to an end, an end that’s really just the beginning,” says Robin Saitz, senior vice president at PTC and one of STEMconnector’s 100 women leaders in STEM. “It’s incredible to be a part of these beginnings. We witness it every time we bring in an intern with FIRST experience. These kids are some of our most valued interns…they astound their managers with their focus, energy, productivity, and determination.,” Saitz concludes.

The robots really are just a means to an end, the competition sets kids up for success in multiple disciplines. Teams mirror what goes on in large corporations everywhere.

In industry we often have limited resources and not enough time, and you never really know what your competitor is going to do, Kamen says. “What makes a really good team is a lot of diverse people who have very different opinions coming together with a common goal. It’s a great training ground for the next generation of technical, business, and political leaders,” he says.

Kamen, a lifetime tinkerer and inventor, takes his inspiration from his father who worked long hours on the Long Island railroad. His father, Kamen says, taught him to be passionate about what he does. “Figure out what you love to do and the figure out how to get so good at it you can make a living out of it,” he says.

And Kamen’s advice for this year’s rooky teams: “Stay calm and enjoy it.”

Connect with the FIRST Robotocs Competition @frcteams and @FIRSTweets, #omgrobots.

Photo credit: Argenis Apolinario

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