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Robotics Competition: Tomorrow's Tech Talent Has Game

At the FIRST Robotics Competition, teens learn about technology trade-offs, strategy and teamwork. NASA and major tech firms say the contest shapes tomorrow's tech leaders.

The amount of money involved is one of the things that tends to scare off potential team organizers, Austin said, admitting "the first year is the hardest because you don't have a robot to show people." The rules stipulate that teams can spend no more than $4,000 on the robot itself, and no more than $400 on any individual part, but other expenses such as travel and shipping mount up fast.

Yet once the students learn the business part of the operation, they become the answer, Austin said. "If I can get them in front of a CEO, he's not going to say no." NASA makes grants available specifically to help new teams get started, she said, and many other grants are available once you learn where to look for them.

Austin knows from experience that the effort is worth it. As a direct result of involvement in FIRST, her younger daughter wound up getting three internship offers while she was still in high school, along with a $20,000 scholarship to study engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, she said. "I stopped being able to help her with math in fifth grade."

Austin said there are four ways she sees teams being organized:

-- As a direct outgrowth of a school STEM program, where building the robot is part of a class.

-- As an after-school program.

-- As a university-sponsored program, with engineering students and faculty as mentors.

-- Under the umbrella of another youth organization, such as Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts or 4H.

Exploding Bacon is a 4H Club, which allows it to draw on four high schools plus the local population of home schoolers, she said. Many of the leading clubs at the South Florida event actually seemed to be community-based groups, rather than being attached to a specific school. That's also true of S.P.A.M., although the third team in the winning alliance, the Tech Tigers, is anchored at the Atlantic Technical Center Magnet School.

The Dirty Mechanics of Boca Raton bounced back as a community-based team after losing its official status as a club at Boca Raton High School. Now, the team continues to draw most of its members from the high school, which has a competitive STEM magnet program, but has also pulled in students from other schools in the community as well as a number of home schoolers.

That presented its own challenges, said Nick Middlebrooks, the student technical leader on the team. "The home school kids didn't know how to use power tools, how to drill, how to wire things, how to do programming," he said, but now they do. "Everyone on the team knows at least the basics of how to build."

"We've had a lot of issues getting funding," said team captain Erin Ferguson, explaining that she wound up with a budget of about $12,000, including help from the local Rotary Club and JC Penney, as well as funding and in-kind donations and mentorship from Tyco. When the team members were designing their flying disk launcher, they developed the prototype in plywood and then their mentor from Tyco turned it into sheet metal, she said. "He machined the parts, but we assembled them."

For their efforts, they got a robot that performed quite well, with the ability to shoot from anywhere on the field and push other robots around with high-torque on its wheels. Although this didn't translate into a victory, the Dirty Mechanics walked away with the Judge's Award for "extreme resilience."

Keeping the club alive was a learning experience all its own.

Dirty Mechanics technical lead Nick Middlebrooks, team captain Erin Ferguson (in the tiara) and operations head Kendall Manning on their robot, their strategy and how to create a great team.

Follow David F. Carr at @davidfcarr or Google+, along with @IWKEducation.

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User Rank: Author
4/2/2013 | 7:11:51 PM
re: Robotics Competition: Tomorrow's Tech Talent Has Game
I smiled at this quote from one of the teens: "I loved people, I just didn't know how to talk to people." How many of us work with adults who still don't know how to talk to people? Chat with any IT recruiter and you will hear communication is the skill you can't fake and you can't do without.

Laurianne McLaughlin
User Rank: Author
4/3/2013 | 12:37:50 AM
re: Robotics Competition: Tomorrow's Tech Talent Has Game
I took my daughters to one of these robotics competitions a few years back, and it was spectacular. Held in a downtown arena, fans from the different schools were screaming and cheering with all the intensity of an overtime basketball game. Genius.
David F. Carr
David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
4/3/2013 | 4:54:00 PM
re: Robotics Competition: Tomorrow's Tech Talent Has Game
BTW, I know the $60,000 / $80,000 budgets some of these teams throw around sound pretty scary to educators operating on a slim budget, but those are the budgets of long-established championship teams who've built up significant backing from commercial sponsors. Also, the budgets have to get higher if those teams make it into the championship and need to travel across the country. I talked to other teams that did respectably well on something more like a $10,000 budget -- still a lot, I know.

As one of the adult leaders says in the story, that experience of asking for the big bucks from the CEO of a potential donor company is almost as valuable as the robot-building experience itself. Watch out when these kids hit the work world with that mix of technical and business knowledge.
Ethan Kalfus
Ethan Kalfus,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/3/2013 | 7:13:49 PM
re: Robotics Competition: Tomorrow's Tech Talent Has Game
I found Dan Richardson's comment about how the competitiveness of the robotics league captured his fascination. The spirit of the competition is a paradox - at times competitive, yes, but also cooperative.

My son, Billy, is a member of the Pascack Pioneers of River Vale, NJ. During last year's competition, another team's robot suffered mechanical failure. Billy provided assistance, fixing their robot. When I asked him, "Aren't you helping the competition?", his response was, "It's not a competition to me. It's all about helping and learning from each other".

As well, at the end of each match, teams tried to balance their robot on a "coopertition" bridge with the other team's robot, even nudging a sluggish competitor's robot with their own to accomplish the feat, in order to earn extra points.

Teams also regularly cheer for other teams.

So, while each team certainly wants to win, members exude a spirit sorely lacking in the win-at-all-costs world of sports. Learning how to win is important; learning to do so with grace and humility is equally important.
David F. Carr
David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
4/4/2013 | 5:07:29 PM
re: Robotics Competition: Tomorrow's Tech Talent Has Game
Thanks for your comment. I definitely saw that dynamic at work as well. Also, the approach of having an alliance of 3 teams win the competition, rather than a single team, is very interesting and mirrors the partnerships of the business world.

Although I didn't write about it, several people I spoke with mentioned the principle of "gracious professionalism" as a founding principle of the organization, which is one way they promote the attitude you're talking about.

User Rank: Apprentice
4/9/2013 | 6:56:50 PM
re: Robotics Competition: Tomorrow's Tech Talent Has Game
David - this is one of the best articles I've EVER seen about FIRST. Thanks for really taking the time to learn the ins and outs of this awesome program! I've been involved for four years now, first as a student and now as a college mentor. My experience in FIRST equipped me with both technical skills and confidence to obtain a software engineering internship at a Fortune 500 tech company as a freshman in college, a fairly unusual feat. I hope articles like this continue to spread FIRST to those who don't know about it and expose that more people to the great benefits of this amazing program. Also - nice name, mine's the same :)
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