Get involved with the FIRST Robotics Competition

Want to have some fun? Managing Editor Ken Schnepf says you should get involved with the FIRST Robotics Competition. Read about how 93,000 students in 32 countries compete in the field of robotics each year.

By Ken Schnepf, managing editor

If building robots with tomorrow’s engineers sounds like fun, then there’s still time to get involved in this year’s FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC), LEGO (FLL) League or the newly established Vex Challenge pilot program. These activities link students of various ages with adult mentors to promote an interest in engineering, science, technology and math.

The FRC started in January and is a six-week program that culminates in a three-day competition with high school students and their adult mentors, who are given a common kit of parts to build their robots. The FLL is for 9-to-14-year-olds (9-to-16-year-olds outside the U.S. and Canada) and has an Ocean Odyssey theme this year. Additionally, two new pilot programs, a Junior LEGO League for 6-to-9-year-olds, and the VEX Robotics Design System for high school students, have been established by For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST), based in Manchester, N.H.

There are 93,000 students from 32 countries participating in the programs, says Marian Murphy, FIRST communications manager. She expects there will be 30,000 mentors involved in this year’s programs. Past participants praise their experiences and often return as mentors.

“I turned down admission to the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, my high school-long dream, to become an engineer,” says Lauren Lyons, in a letter of gratitude to FIRST. She is an alumna of the program who has since enrolled at Princeton University, majoring in mechanical engineering. Her prior career path was business and psychology. “Because of my involvement with the program, I have grown not only to improve in and appreciate the concepts of math, science and engineering, but also to enjoy them.”

Jeremy Roberts is a software engineer at QCEPT Technologies and a recent Georgia Tech graduate. As a high school student, he got involved in the FRC in 1998 in Florida because he enjoys competition as well as building and designing robots. Later, as a volunteer, he helped establish an FRC program in Georgia.

Program participants are more than three times as likely to major in engineering (41% versus 13%), according to an independent survey by Brandeis University. Additionally, they are roughly  10 times as likely to have had an apprenticeship, internship or co-op job in freshman year (27% versus 3%); significantly more likely to expect to achieve a post-graduate degree (masters or higher: 77% versus 63%); more than twice as likely to expect to pursue a science or technology career (45% versus 20%); and nearly four times as likely to expect to pursue a career in engineering (31% versus 8%).

“Basically, we’ve taken a page from the sports playbook to make this exciting,” says Murphy.

“You must take a look in the pits and observe the rows and rows of robots at their stations, and while doing that, it is essential to listen to the conversation and strategizing taking place with the sounds of the machine shop drilling and clanking in the background,” says Lyons. “You must see the looks of fatigue after a long day of competition and hear the rumble in the stomachs of those who willingly skipped lunch to make last-minute adjustments to their robots before their one o’clock match. You must look into the crowd and see every seat filled with thousands of young, bright minds coming together in the name of science and fun.”

The FFL concludes with the Super Bowl of Smarts from April 27 to 29 in the Georgia Dome. There is still room for more mentors, and monetary donations to the program are accepted as well.

“The best way to get started is to look up events in your area on our Web site [www.usfirst.org],” says Murphy. On the Web site, there are links for event schedules, volunteers, sponsorships, and each of the programs.

FIRST was founded in 1989 by engineer Dean Kamen. He is currently president of DEKA Research and Development Corp., Manchester, N.H.

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