FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology)
For thousands of high school robotics teams, the most anticipated day of the year is the live NASA broadcast announcing the rules for the year’s FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC), an international tournament that involves more than 45,000 high school students. Teams then tear into a kit of parts and begin the exhaustive six-week design and build period, at the end of which they will have created a 120-pound robot capable of competing in a complex series of tasks, such as kicking soccer balls while navigating a playing field littered with humps and tunnels.
“It’s the most intense six weeks of the year,” says Megan Shew, a senior at Greenville Tech Charter High School and president of FIRST Robotics Team EnTech 281 in Greenville, S.C. “I stay in the shop every day after school until about 9 p.m., and most weekends from 10 until 8. Once you’re involved, it’s hard to leave.”
Fun, Challenging Environment
The brainchild of Segway inventor Dean Kamen, FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was founded in 1989. It now offers four programs targeted at students of all ages, including a recently added Junior FIRST Lego League for K-3 students.
With its fun and challenging team environment, FIRST helps students discover untapped passions for science and engineering. “We encourage kids to just pick up a tool and try it,” says Tonya Scott, a biology teacher at Ponca City High School in Oklahoma and leader of the school’s 12-year-old Wildcat Robotics team, which has won more than two dozen awards and championships. “We pull them in and make them team players.”
More than 212,000 students from 57 countries compete in FIRST. Studies show they’re more likely to attend college, major in and pursue careers in science and engineering, and serve as volunteers and mentors. According to FIRST, minority participants are more than twice as likely as their peers who do not participate in the program to pursue science and engineering in college, while female students are four times more likely than their peers to do so.
Emphasis on Teamwork, Community Service
FIRST encourages what it calls “gracious professionalism”—a concept that’s critical for a job market where employers prize teamwork. “Our ultimate goal is to work very closely with other teams and share information, which is what the businesses where we’re going to work are going to need,” explains Beth Hadley, a senior at Northville High School in Michigan who has interned at NASA. One story has become legend: During the final round of a national championship, one team’s robot snapped its drive chain. An opposing team shared a spare master link, effectively handing its rival the win. “That team got such recognition for its conduct, it was a win on both sides,” says Bill Miller, FRC’s director.
In fact, FIRST’s highest awards focus on community service and promoting STEM, not tournament wins. Having gotten hooked on programming after joining an all-girls Lego team in 6th grade, Hadley created a robotics team at her district’s middle school the summer before her freshman year, working with members of her high school’s Robotics team to mentor the younger students. I see a lot of the 6th graders who come in as shy individuals—that’s who I was—develop and enroll in science classes,” says Hadley, one of 10 students named to the “Dean’s List,” which honors exceptional FRC student leaders. “Because FIRST is growing so rapidly, we need to make sure it can foster itself.”
That’s why FRC teams sponsor summer camps, roll their robots in community parades, and even build greeter robots for elementary schools, as Shew’s team did. As a team leader, Scott helped win a $100,000 grant for FRC teams from the Oklahoma legislature. To help the two dozen new teams created by the grant, Scott’s team developed a “quick-build session” to help rookies get a running start on their robots.
$12 Million in Scholarships
FIRST receives support from a wide range of corporate sponsors, which provide more than $12 million in scholarships and look to the program to help build a technologically literate workforce. But at the team level, it’s the 12,000 companies whose employees serve as FRC mentors that play the largest role.
“I encourage everyone I meet to get involved with FIRST as a volunteer, a mentor, or by supporting a team,” says Nicole Collazo, a senior software engineer with Raytheon, whose chief engineer also sits on FIRST’s executive advisory board. To help link students and volunteers to robotics teams and other STEM learning opportunities, FIRST partnered with Time Warner Cable on Connect a Million Minds, an initiative to help students “see that math and science can be fun through engaging, hands-on experiences,” according to Time Warner Cable Chairman, President and CEO Glenn Britt.
For FRC participants, these investments pay off in ways that go far beyond the playing field. “I can now conduct a business meeting, present concepts to a board of judges, fundraise, and concisely and technically explain my ideas,” says Shew, who is applying to college engineering programs. “When I walked onto the team, I had no idea what I wanted to be. It made me realize my passion for the engineering process.”