Young Scientists, Engineers Strut Their Stuff on Stage Where Sonics Used to Roam

3/26/10Follow @xconomy

Seattle’s KeyArena was rocking this morning. I walked in around 9 am, and heard the Guns N’ Roses hard rock anthem “Welcome to the Jungle” blaring from the speakers. Referees in pinstriped uniforms monitored every move of the gladiators on display. School mascots led the crowd in clapping, stomping, and cheering.

“RO-bots! RO-bots! RO-bots!”

You read that right. This wasn’t the state high school basketball championship. It was the FIRST Robotics regional competition, in which 64 high school teams from Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, and Turkey (not sure how that’s regional) teamed up to build robots that can do nifty things, like kick soccer balls through a tiny goal.

This was a display of brainpower that would have been perceived as pretty darn nerdy in my high school, but not in here. FIRST, the brainchild of engineer Dean Kamen of Segway fame, got going in the early 1990s, and has since grown into a movement that’s been modeled after all the things sports do well to captivate the imaginations of young people. This event was sponsored by a few innovative organizations that depend on a steady stream of bright young scientists and engineers—-Microsoft, Boeing, NASA, and The Bezos Family Foundation, to name a few.

I was curious to see if it was as big a deal as advertised. I’m embarrassed to admit I had never heard of FIRST until last June in Boston. That’s when I saw Kamen give a fiery speech at an Xconomy event—which drew at least a 60-second standing ovation from the audience of about 300 people—about how he was on a mission to do nothing less than “change the culture of the United States.” In Kamen’s vision, young people would look up to scientists and engineers like they do today to Paris Hilton or Shaquille O’Neal. Obviously few kids who dream of playing in the NBA or starring in some reality show will ever achieve those goals, but if they applied all of their talent and drive to something like engineering and robotics, as Kamen says, then this is a sport in which they can certainly go pro.

The students, because they are young, have a long time to think about what they want to do with their lives. I was more interested in what the parents had to say. So I walked up into the stands and randomly interviewed a couple of them—David and Susan Olive of Gig Harbor, WA. They were there to root for their son, Parker, a sophomore at the Tacoma School for the Arts, and his 30-some teammates.

Neither of the Olives are engineers—Susan is an accountant by training, and David is a general manager for a vending company. They have introduced their son to lots of different sports and activities through the years, and he has dabbled in some arts. Nothing really stuck.

That was true until October, says Susan Olive. He joined the robotics team, and tried his hand at programming, while some of the other kids had other assignments like design or building. By January, he was wholly absorbed, staying after school until 7 or 8 pm, even when he still had homework to do after that, Susan Olive says. He started working on the programming on weekends, not because someone told him to do it, but because he wanted to. By today’s event in March, he had developed enough skill that he was helping offer advice to some of the other teams on their programming, his mother says with a surprised tone.

“Now he’s considering pursuing engineering in college,” Susan Olive says. “It’s been absolutely amazing for him. This is the first time we’ve seen him light up with a real passion. They make it fun. It’s really been a life-changing experience.”

FIRST may not get a lot of attention in the local news, but it has definitely struck a chord. There are some 45,000 high school students in 12 countries competing this year for a spot in the championship round held at the Georgia Dome from April 15-17. I wasn’t able to stick around to see if the Tacoma School of the Arts advanced through today’s qualifying regional matches, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they make it, judging from the spirit they showed in a 9-2 victory this morning.

“It’s really sparked something in him,” Susan Olive says of her son. “It’s amazing. It’s really a way to make engineering and math and science fun and practical.”

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  • http://lazowska.cs.washington.edu/ Ed Lazowska

    Here are a tiny number of photos from this morning. FIRST is truly inspirational.

    http://picasaweb.google.com/lazowska/FIRST?authkey=Gv1sRgCMbhiMLawKO6NQ&feat=email#

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/ltimmerman/ Luke Timmerman

    Ed—thanks very much for the pictures. I’m kicking myself for not taking any good ones, because there were some great opportunities. If anybody else who was there wants to contribute some pictures, just add a comment below.

    Luke

  • Susan Olive

    Great article! …. and thanks for the “15 minutes of fame” ;)

    By the way.. his team, the SOTAbots, not only continued to do well on Friday… but made it all the way to the finals Saturday and were on the Regional Championship winning alliance! We’re going to Atlanta!

    ~ Susan Olive