By Kimberly Thomas
The air is charged with excitement as kids jump up and down, excitedly cheering each other. Quietly whirring into the ring, the first competitor appears. The competing team stands outside the ring, controlling their robot’s every move. Seeing the work that goes into this competition makes you appreciate the years of playing with video games and remote control cars that seemed pointless before. Safety glasses are applied and earplugs inserted as the birth of science begins. The one thing all of these students have in common is their unabashed love of discovery.
F.I.R.S.T. is a celebration of human capabilities, not only in science and technology but all areas of life. The kids participating in these events stand out when it comes to making a difference in society. F.I.R.S.T. is not just about building and controlling a robot, it’s about building our youth into gracious professionals who can work together to solve the world’s ills.
Dean Kamen, inventor, entrepreneur and advocate for scientific and technological advances, founded F.I.R.S.T. in 1989. The acronym F.I.R.S.T. represents “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.” Kamen’s vision was to create changes in the future by celebrating science and technology during younger, formative years so that kids experience the excitement firsthand rather than only learning science in a classroom setting. This can be frustrating to kids and can lead them to assume science and technology is purely for nerds. Here, kids are encouraged to feed their inquisitive side. F.I.R.S.T. rewards them for thinking outside the box, and in turn, kids gain more self-confidence and life skills than are available in the classroom. Kamen’s goal is to win the competition for the hearts and minds of our youth. He believes that in a world where kids are often pointed in the wrong direction, F.I.R.S.T. offers a positive alternative, giving them the skills to create a better world.
Based in Manchester, N.H., this not-for-profit corporation is dedicated to designing accessible programs that motivate young minds to pursue educational and career opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math. In addition to the obvious skills they gain, F.I.R.S.T. helps kids build self-confidence, knowledge and invaluable life-skills that carry them through their futures.
The overall competition changes yearly; however, core components of the task remain the same. All teams are presented the challenge simultaneously through an international broadcast, and each team has exactly six weeks from the time of the broadcast to complete the task before competition begins.
This years’ game? Mini bots sit within a larger robot. The larger robots pick up inner tubes shaped like parts of the F.I.R.S.T. logo – a circle, triangle and square – and place them on different rungs of large PVC stands; the top rung gets the most points, the middle rung less, and the bottom rung the least points. Extra points are earned if the logo is placed in the proper order. The large robots look like remote controlled forklifts, their appendages climbing high into the air to deposit the colorful inner tubes into the designated place. After the task is complete, the smaller robots are deployed to climb to the top of the PVC poles.
The Oklahoma Science Museum recently hosted a F.I.R.S.T. practice day. Students were able to see their robots in action and get their first real practice driving their creation. When you think about robotic competitions, the first thing that comes to mind is usually “Battle Bots.” But the “Battle Bots” fight to incapacitate each other, while the spirit of F.I.R.S.T. competition is one of “gracious professionalism.” You never find robots fighting at these competitions. The goal is to “outperform” each other rather than destroy each other.
F.I.R.S.T. teams are high school pre-engineering students who spend half their day at Francis Tuttle Vo-Tech, Canadian Valley Vo-Tech, Moore-Norman Vo-Tech, or numerous other technical schools across the country, and half their day at high school. There are about 50 teams statewide, each consisting of an average of 5-25 students. Their challenge? Students are responsible for designing the robot, finding sponsors to fund their designs, then later collecting the necessary parts, building the bots, programming the computers and finally competing. Students compete for medals and scholarships, but all win lifelong friends, self-confidence and countless life skills, including personal, social and professional skills.
David Koonce, now a mentor who currently works at the Oklahoma Science Museum, competed as a student during his high school years. He explains that during F.I.R.S.T. competitions, there are rules against hurting each other’s robots. Koonce goes on to say that F.I.R.S.T. teams are encouraged to band together as allies to help each other win, even if it costs them the championship. This practice teaches our future leaders to work together for the betterment of the whole. Typically at kid-oriented events there is an air of chaos; not here. At this gathering, there is an air of professionalism as they band together in larger groups to compete. F.I.R.S.T. uses the structure of competition to promote teamwork. As individual teams progress through the ranks, it is their goal to win a spot within an alliance of three teams, which eventually compete for the championship. This makes it a clear advantage to help other teams win as the focus shifts from an individual to a collective goal. In a world where every man fends for himself, it is refreshing to see a place where kids are rewarded for being helpful to each other.
F.I.R.S.T. engages children from ages 6-18 in exciting mentor-based programs that build skills essential to their future. They are taught to be innovative while remaining non-confrontational and encouraged to compete, and learning that winning is not the ultimate goal. Teams learn how to communicate and work together to create something better than what they could create alone. Since the focus is discovery rather than winning the competition, everyone benefits. Mentors are provided by sponsoring companies, although many are previous team members. Some mentors are currently attending college on scholarships from their own involvement in competition.
As expected, boys outnumber girls in competition, but girls seem to be more vocal and show more emotion while competing.
Emily Ifill, the most boisterous of the self-proclaimed ringside cheerleaders, was unaware of F.I.R.S.T. when she originally went to Francis Tuttle Vo-Tech – a friend introduced her to the program. Once she joined the group, she found herself “embracing her nerdiness,” and loves the excitement of F.I.R.S.T. competitions. Since graduating and going on to college, her focus has shifted to being a mentor, educating others about F.I.R.S.T., taking pictures of the teams and cheerleading during competitions.
Emily is currently one of only four female engineering students at OSU, where she is pursuing a double-major in aerospace and mechanical engineering. She still loves being involved in F.I.R.S.T. and is quick to point out she wouldn’t be who she is without what she learned during F.I.R.S.T. competition.
Hayley Baxter, a senior in high school, didn’t think she was smart enough to enter the F.I.R.S.T. program until Emily began to mentor her toward her potential. She enjoys getting other young minds involved in science in a fun and exciting way, and among other accomplishments, Hayley has been instrumental in founding a “Girl Scouts Engineer Day,” “Middle School Engineering Challenge,” and helping Francis Tuttle Vo-Tech organize a F.I.R.S.T. Lego League for younger students. Hayley is already planning to apply to OU’s biomedical or chemical engineering program, and feels F.I.R.S.T. has given her the confidence to accomplish bigger things than she thought she could alone.
Hayley is already mentoring Cody Blades, and was instrumental in getting him involved in mechanical engineering. Since participating in F.I.R.S.T., Cody finds his communication skills and work ethic have improved. The feeling he gets when he accomplishes his goals continues to propel him toward his larger dream of being a mechanical engineer.
The practice day hosted by the Oklahoma Science Museum was in preparation for the regional competitions, which were held at the Cox Center in March. There, three teams advanced to the FRC championship, which will be held in St. Louis, Mo. on April 27-30, 2011.
This is just another example of involvement in science and technology that continues shaping young Oklahomans into the nation’s future leaders. For more information, visit www.USFIRST.org.