How FIRST inspires students to find their place in our robotic future

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed June 10, 2016
LiveWorx brought me face to face with the ambitious students involved in FIRST's Robotics Competitions. Robots smashing into each other doesn't begin to tell the story. These students are more prepared for a robotics future than I am. Here's what they told me about the highs and lows of building robots - complete with photos.

FIRST at the LiveWorx keynote

A LiveWorx highlight was seeing students from FIRST on the keynote stage, showing off their robotic creations (tech glitches aside). FIRST's programs are about "more than robots" - their umbrella mission is STEM education - but it was students from the FIRST robotics competition who came to LiveWorx to remind cranky bloggers like me that young people are finding their way amongst the robots - probably better than I am.

I joke that all future jobs will be about designing robots, building robots, fixing robots, or fighting robots. If so, FIRST's robotic students have all four covered. After the keynote, I made my way to the FIRST booth and learned a boatload from high school students who were amazingly open about the highs and lows of robotics.

FIRST was at LiveWorx due to their close partnership with PTC. PTC donates software and services (Creo, PTC Mathcad and Windchill) to all FIRST teams. They also provide training curriculum, online workshops, and funding grants. After the keynote, I stopped by the FIRST booth for a closer look. As the kids shared stories, the culture around FIRST's robotics competitions emerged. It was not what I was expecting.

FIRST has been around since 1989. Many teams have storied histories of their own. Each team has a name and number. I talked with students from team 1965, aka The Firebirds. I also talked with students from Ligerbots, FIRST team 2877.

Meeting the teams - introducing the Firebirds and the Liberbots

Based out of Saint Joseph Preparatory High School in Boston, the Firebirds have been competing in robotics competitions since 2006. The Firebirds' web site describes the competition as a "blend of basketball and sumo wrestling." The students build a five foot tall, 130 pound robot. The robot must complete a series of tasks, both autonomous and remote controlled. Students acquire skills in diverse fields, including drill presses, lathe, milling machines, CAD design, computer animation, web page design, electronics, programming, and project management.

FIRST robot kicking butt

For the layperson, you're talking about building a robot that can surmount obstacles and fling a ball (accurately!) towards a target (see example, on right, of a Ligerbots robot overcoming a barrier via remote control). The Firebirds built many of their parts with a 3D printer, a feat which the team took justifiable pride in.

Hailing from the Newton North and Newton South High Schools in Massachusetts, The Ligerbots have their own prideful tradition. Students have six weeks to design and build a "complex" robot that plays a game (a different game each year).

During competitions, teams are paired, working cooperatively with two other teams to outscore a team of three opponents. Past years have included frisbee and basketball inspired games. (This video from the aerial assist competition in 2014 shows how nuanced these "games" are).

This year's competition is called FIRST Stronghold: "Two Alliances are on a Quest to breach their opponents’ fortifications, weaken their tower with boulders, and capture the opposing tower. Robots score points by breaching opponents’ defenses and scoring boulders through goals in the opposing tower." FIRST competitions are guided by a 600 page rule book, which seems like a lot of minutiae. Then again, the culture around FIRST seems tied to these tiny details, honed by years of competitions.

I thought students would tell me of triumphs smashing other teams robots. But deliberately smashing another vehicle is prohibited. Instead, I heard anecdotes about competing teams helping each other out, even repairing each other's robots during competitions.

Robots compete - the highs and the lows

The Ligerbots talk shop

I asked the students for their highs and lows. High point for the Ligerbots: "Seeing our robot work with all the code we added." The Ligerbots weren't happy with their robot control options. So the following year, they added quite a bit of software code, giving them more control over their robot's actions. Seeing it work in competition, controlled by their X-Box style remotes? A high-five moment. Even better: some of the code was "autonomous," meaning it governed the robots actions without human intervention. Using autonomous code, the Ligerbots were able to build in a disable command for the auto-shooter to avoid auto-shooting at the wrong times or targets.

Firebirds robot - AKA

As for the Firebirds' high point, one female student told me: "3D printing all the parts and seeing how well they worked." 3D printing the parts wasn't a picnic - it took a while to print them and then hone them to fit their vehicle. But the end result was a beauty (see the Firebirds' demo robot pictured right - and yes, it's got a name - "The Mole.").

The Ligerbots hit a low point when their robot was taken out of commission by an aggressive rival that backed it into a corner and smashed it up good. Wait, but isn't that against the cooperative rules? "Yes, but they got away with it," a Ligerbot said, with more amusement than resentment.

My take - this is the future of education, not school

I asked prodding questions to see if students would air out bitter rivalries. But the antagonism that was so much a part of my own school's competitions was nowhere to be found. Clues can be found on the Ligerbots web site:

FIRST promotes both community involvement and "gracious professionalism." While everyone loves to win, FIRST is not about winning in the traditional sense. Winning in FIRST is linked to continuing the vision of its founder: to provide inspiration and recognition of the value of science and technology. Teams are expected to mentor new teams and to participate in community events which promote science and technology. They are also expected to be good sports and to help team members and other teams, especially at competitions when teams help their competitors compete by sharing tools, parts, and experience.

This isn't a robots club; this about sparking young people to acquire life skills:

The team is run like a small business. The team not only builds a robot, but students have to build a brand, design a business plan, organize and volunteer at community events, while building teamwork skills, finding sponsors and mentors, fundraising, and of course still complete their homework. The LigerBots is a student-run team. In addition to the design and construction of the robot, LigerBots students are expected to take responsibility for all other aspects of the team, including fundraising, marketing, and publicity. Students on the LigerBots are also actively involved in community outreach and service.

I smiled at the "still complete their homework" comment. One of the students admitted they had fallen behind on their schoolwork at times due to their robotics obsessions. You don't want to lose track of classes. But as I see it, these FIRST activities are far more relevant to students' futures than the tired curriculums of most high schools. Schooling as we know it is now totally out of whack with the tech-savvy, on-demand economy that awaits.

The real test is whether these programs change careers or wind up as forgotten hobbies. Based on the students I talked to, there is little chance of the latter. Both Ligerbots and Firebirds told me they've been inspired by these projects, enough to turn them into careers - if not in robotics, than in tech in general. And for the record, they weren't buying into my comments on a Terminator-style robotics dystopia. They expressed a natural optimism that robots and humans will live and work productively together - and why not? They're already doing just that.

End note: out of respect for the privacy of these students, I did not take or print any close up pictures of them.

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