FIRST Robotics Encourages Healthy Competition and Strong Relationships With Engineering Field
Last weekend, FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) held a Regional Robotics Competition for 53 teams at Boston University’s Agganis Arena. High school students were challenged with the opportunity to test themselves as engineers and problem solvers. The game, called LOGO Motion, pits alliances of three robots against each other and awards points for placing each balloon, which is in the shape of a triangle, circle, or square on an appropriate peg to form the FIRST logo.
Preliminary rounds are scheduled Thursday, which help get the robots fine-tuned and then certified by the judges. Friday and Saturday morning the teams run through qualifying rounds to determine seeding for the final alliance selection. I coached the Newton Ligerbots, FIRST Team 2877 (sponsored by PTC, Raytheon, Textron, and NDEP). The matches were very exciting, with the Ligerbots playing solid defense while their alliance partners scored, but the trio lost in the quarterfinal round.
FIRST is about more than drive-trains, chassis, elevators, mechanical-arms, electrical systems, and computer programs. Below are some of my other takeaways from the event:
—Challenges: It was hard for the students to assess the level of difficulty involved in the design and strategy of their solution to this year’s problem. Additionally, the team found it difficult to evaluate the time required to build, because of the snow days that forced us to have six days off. However, this is the reality of engineering and FIRST creates an environment that simulates what students will see at work.
—Lessons Learned: As our team ages (we are currently a third-year team) more responsibility for decision-making is passed from the coaches to the students. We have students writing grants, scheduling the season, maintaining our Web page, and managing the development of the robot’s components. This all requires a significant level of teamwork and communication.
We never stop trying to enhance our product, and we pass our knowledge on to help others. It becomes apparent that teams can compete at the highest level while still cooperating and therefore promote a positive experience for all. FIRST has coined expressions that speak to this. “Coopertition” speaks to these ideals, where teams consistently help each other to get better. “Gracious Professionalism” is the second ideal that FIRST robotics teams continue to emulate. We cheer each other on and do not question the judges’ decision. These ideals are sometimes hard to find in society, but common among FIRST teams. As Dean Kamen says, “this is a sport that everyone can go pro.” I would add that we have a lot of fun doing it.
—Inspiration for the Future: The difference from FIRST and other programs that have students doing STEM-related activities, even other robotics competitions, are the mentors. FIRST teams go to great lengths developing relationships with sponsoring corporations—in part to raise the funds to compete. We also explain to each of our sponsors how valuable the mentor/student connection is. This way, the members of our team are introduced to current engineering practices, while mentors and sponsors are developing the next generation of engineers.
We only have two years of graduates in college and at this point I can already point to examples of students in engineering programs. Specifically, at the two regionals we just attended. One of our graduates was helping out at the WPI regional and another former Ligerbot is at Northeastern University and a mentor on another FIRST team. We have also placed several members with sponsors for internships.