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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.

Richardson said corporate support tends to come from engineering-oriented firms who want to produce their next generation of employees. Even in the worst years of the recession, employers reported a shortage of engineering talent, he pointed out, and unemployment in the sector is extremely low. He stays involved in FIRST because he wants young people to recognize the opportunity the program presents to get a head start on an engineering career. Besides, it's something that can "make them rock stars in school," he said. While still a college student in the engineering program at the University of Central Florida, he helped found Exploding Bacon.

Many advocates see FIRST providing experience young people simply couldn't get at school, even in a program that emphasizes science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines. Practical skills include mechanical and electrical design, working with professional design software, making custom parts, and assembling the robot, as well as doing embedded system programming.

"For everything you see that moves, there are probably a thousand lines of code," said Jade Zsiros, a S.P.A.M. programmer last year who returned this year as team captain, dressed in the team uniform of blue tights and a superman cape. The coding alone took about two weeks of work with three programmers, she said.

FIRST competitors who go on to college engineering studies report that the first projects they are assigned "are a snap" for them, while other users struggle, said Richard Brooks, an adult leader and engineering mentor for S.P.A.M., a team that will be defending its world champion title in St. Louis this year. They learn how to take a concept and turn it into reality, with real-world constraints like time, budget and materials. "They learn how to apply STEM principles in a real-life situation," he said.

For example, one critical decision teams had to make going into this year's competition was how much to optimize their robots for climbing versus speed, maneuverability and the ability to throw flying discs. Brooks said he thought his alliance had struck a good balance, with each robot able to climb on the first rung of the pyramid tower and hang there, a feat worth 10 bonus points. Each machine also boasted good throwing power. Also, when the important autonomous phase of play started, the rules required the robots to start out touching the central pyramid towers.

Exploding Bacon had built its robot squat enough that it could duck under the tower and scoot closer to shoot discs into the high central goal, which is worth more points, and all goals scored during autonomous play count double. Meanwhile, the Tech Tigers robot was one of the few dexterous enough to pick discs off the floor and throw them, rather than retreating to the other end of the field to be resupplied.

The Ninjineers, a team from American Heritage High School in Plantation, Fla., made different choices and wound up with the only robot at this competition that consistently climbed to the third rung of the tower.

"We had the only robot in the whole competition that has been able to climb to the 30-point level, and we've been doing it all weekend," said John Vermes, a teacher in the school's engineering program who serves as a mentor to the team. Like capturing the Golden Snitch in Quidditch, this is a move that tends to be decisive. The secret to their design, he proudly pointed out, was a climbing arm that also served as a flying disk launcher, in contrast to the separate mechanisms many other teams had built for those two tasks.

Yet in a semi-final round, with victory hanging by a thread, the alliance the Ninjineers had joined was betrayed by a bit of string. Although the robots from the other two teams hadn't climbed as high, all had lifted themselves off the floor. However, the umpire responsible for checking that none was touching the ground at any point found a bit of string hanging from one of them and invalidated that 10-point bonus. It was just enough to change what would have been a win into a loss, by a margin of two points.

"We'd been hoping to go to St. Louis," Vermes said, sadly. Win or lose, the competition teaches things that are hard to convey through school exercises, he said. "A robot is a lab unto itself -- it's reality, not theory, and it has to work. To succeed, to win, it has to be high quality." The robot also has to be their work, not his, he said. "I only do the welding."

S.P.A.M.'s Brooks said he has a few team members who are athletes like Richardson but most are "the nerdier kids." Part of the value of the program is to make them more well-rounded, he said. Even as they stretch their math and science skills, they also are learning to communicate better and work in teams.

"When they come in as freshmen, they're talking to their shoes," Brooks said. Yet to do well in FIRST, they not only need to build a great robot, they also need to be able to sell sponsors and ultimately the judges on why their robot and their robotics team are so great.

Kristopher Walters, co-president and driver for Exploding Bacon, came into the program as a home schooler, and he said one of the things that it taught him was "how to talk to people." No, that doesn't mean he was shy, not exactly, he said. "I loved people, I just didn't know how to talk to people. Or, being yelled at on the field, but in a friendly way -- I didn't know how to handle that." Yet with practice, he learned to talk, persuade, banter, and cajole -- and give as good as he got when others teased him.

Exploding Bacon co-president and driver Kristopher Walters explains the design of a championship robot.

"Anyone here will tell you, it's not about the robot," said Wendy Austin, one of the adult advisors to Exploding Bacon and a member of the regional council. "They learn critical thinking, design, engineering, marketing, business and how to write a press release. We have an annual budget of about $68,000, so they have to learn how to go to a CEO and make a presentation. They're not shy about asking for it."

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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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