This year marks my first time attending the FIRST® Robotics Competition Championship, and the experience left me optimistic and excited about the future – not only of technology – but also for the next generation of innovators.
FIRST® (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is a premier STEM education organization that provides team-based robotics competitions for students from elementary school through high school. Through FIRST Robotics Competition, high school students work in teams, designing and building their own robots to compete against – as well as work with – other teams from all over the world. Each year, a new game challenges them to overcome obstacles and perform various difficult tasks. In April, after a series of matches, the winning teams meet at the Championship, held this year in St. Louis’ Dome at America’s Center.
This is my third year as a volunteer mentor for FIRST Robotics and the most exciting part is that it gives me an opportunity to help the next generation of budding technologists kick-start their careers, especially young women and girls. I remember how tough it was for me to break into a male-dominated technology field, and if I can encourage just one girl or young woman to pursue this rewarding profession, it will be well worth the effort.
Being a mentor is a rewarding experience and I’m continually amazed and impressed with the imagination and resourcefulness of the teams. They are inspiring groups, working on something they love and it’s incredible how they draw upon one another’s skills to build their robots, and help find solutions to problems.
The all-girl team I mentor, the FIREBIRDS from Mount Saint Joseph Academy in Flourtown, Pa., never ceases to amaze me with its members’ ingenuity, creativity, and commitment to "gracious professionalism," a core tenet of the FIRST program.
Comcast NBCUniversal sponsored 39 teams from across the U.S. this year, and 10 of them went on to compete at the Championship games. While I have gone to a number of FIRST regional competitions, nothing could prepare me for the overwhelming experience of the Championship.
Picture more than 15,000 high school students from 11 countries wearing their teams’ coordinated and elaborately planned outfits, accessorized with an array of pins, hats, beads and other paraphernalia. They were all cheering, singing or dancing alongside their costumed mascots and various medieval-garbed characters – reflecting the 2016 challenge, FIRST® STRONGHOLD, which involved laying siege to an opponent’s castle.
My colleague, Sherita Caesar, Senior Vice President, National Video Deployment Engineering, and I spoke with team members as they prepped and fine-tuned their robots. We met the team Miss Daisy, from Wissahickon High School in Ambler, Pa., which made it to the quarterfinals with a unique design for the hook they used to pull their robot up the castle walls, a feature that gave them bonus points at the end of each round.
Elm City Robo Squad from Hill Regional Career High School in New Haven, Conn., also made it to the quarterfinals with a robot they built in just 11 hours. Organized with four co-captains, this team made sure all 51 team-members took part in every aspect of their project: design, construction, programing, marketing, and every other facet.
Girls of Steel, an all-girls team based at Carnegie Mellon University serving students from the Pittsburgh area, made sure that each of its team members took at least one technology and one business job in their build. Like many other teams, they also fashioned "talent pipelines" in the off-season, holding workshops for younger kids to get them interested in STEM activities. Girls of Steel hosted more than 15 workshops last year, organized so that participants built their own working robots during a three-hour course. This team won the Comcast NBCUniversal Media & Technology Innovation Award in 2015, and they are now the subject of a documentary.
We also spent time with the team that won the 2016 Comcast NBCUniversal Media & Technology Innovation Award, L&N STEMpunks, from L&N STEM Academy in Knoxville, Tenn. The members of this team won for their design, reach and the superlative features of their digital presence, from their website to their social media outreach.
The learning opportunities associated with FIRST go well beyond the technical aspects of building a robot. Students learn how to collaborate and work toward a common goal. They learn skills that will help them well into adulthood and in their future careers. I love promoting FIRST Robotics and STEM activities, and I am always looking for new volunteers and mentors. It is not hard for me to find new recruits, because once you come to one of these events it is easy to get caught up in the excitement and enthusiasm these kids display.