A prolonged winter is one of the challenges of living where I do. But each year, we also get the pleasure of experiencing the very first spring day and that’s a special feeling that I would not trade for all the tropical weather in the world. For me, spring in my town is not defined by the temperature or amount of sunshine. It’s defined, oddly enough, by robots … the third week in March is typically the week of the FIRST Robotics Waterloo Regional Tournament. FIRST stands for “For Inspiration and Reward of Science and Technology”. It is an international team sport where high-schools from around the world compete in complex robotic games with full sized remote controlled and autonomous robots on the playing field about the size of half a basketball court.
It was the brainchild of American inventor and visionary Dean Kamen who not only founded FIRST but also invented the Segway personal transport. Dean envisioned the merging of engineering with something that a lot of kids can relate to – sports. He felt that with the right games, he could give so called nerds a chance to draw the kind of crowds that are reserved for football and basketball. And that game was what might best be called high-intensity competitive robotics. Each year a new game is designed that forces each team to design a full robot from a standardized kit of parts. The robots then have to perform some pretty advanced tasks like picking up a bunch of large balls and shooting them through targets, or stacking oddly shaped objects, or in autonomous mode, targeting and tracking visually objects using modern control system techniques. All this is hard enough but there are five other robots on the field at the same time all trying to do similar things and that’s when the fun really starts.
Dean’s vision quickly gained wide support and today over one thousand teams compete in over 30 regional competitions and then the best among these converge on Atlanta, Georgia in April to compete in the National Championships in the legendary Georgia Dome … complete with TV coverage, marching bands, cheerleaders, and professional announcers.
Since its inception in 1989, FIRST has triggered a love of science and engineering among tens of thousands of high school kids. And these kids aren’t making model rockets or bicarbonate soda volcanoes. These wizards model with CAD systems; they design high performance drives and intelligent vision systems; they do embedded control programming with real targets and real software. Most importantly, they learn real engineering – not so much the technical challenges but the organizational challenges. The true genius of FIRST is the multidimensional nature of the competition. Beyond the robots and the stadium antics are all of the necessary “business” tasks you need to build any successful organization: business plans, team alliances, marketing, mentoring, and time management. FIRST’s name for the ultimate skills that it tries to impart on participants is “gracious professionalism” and it is essentially a mantra for the entire competition and organization.
I’ve been involved with FIRST since the early 1990’s. More recently both I and Maplesoft have become much more active. I’m now a perennial judge at our regional and occasional judge at the Nationals in Atlanta and Maplesoft has been an important sponsor for several years now. And this means every March 20th or so, I put on my blue judge’s shirt and hang out with hundreds of high school kids for a couple of days and try my best to help them come to grips with burnt out motors, slightly less than well-conceived marketing plans, the glories of victory, and the heartbreak of defeat – though no-one really loses in this competition.
In various articles and contexts, I have asked this rhetorical question: “why do we try to motivate kids with pictures of Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer?” – yes they are exceptional people who have done a lot but anyone who has young kids can tell you, your average kid is not likely to get charged up by these fine gentlemen. I’m always impressed when someone or something that manages to bridge this gap between high science and high teenage angst. In my travels I have yet to find an organization that has done a better job of bridging this gap than FIRST. You owe it to yourself to check out a full competition. Bring ear plugs.
FIRST Robotics main Web site
FIRST Robotics Regional Schedule and results
FIRST Robotics Waterloo Regional results
A nice Wired article on Dean Kamen
A match at a the peak of the action
A student shows off his LabVIEW program that configures the CompactRio controller on his robot drive.
Judges congratulate one of the many teams that won awards at the competition. The hand of yours truly in the foreground.