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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