By Jon Mittelman
FIRST is all about inspiration. Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway and many other devices, wanted to inspire kids to enter careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) to make an impact on the problems facing today's world. That's why he and Woodie Flowers, MIT Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering, created FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) in 1992 as a competition for high school kids in the US. Initially just in the United States, FIRST now spans the globe with programs for kids from age 4 to 18.
I have recently returned from the Israel Regional FIRST Competition held in Tel Aviv. With 50 teams participating including teams from Bosnia and the US, the excitement was palpable as this year's competition played out.
The game is played by an alliance of three teams playing against a different alliance of three teams in an arena that resembles a major sporting event. Each round of the game lasts 2 minute and 15 seconds beginning with a 15 second period when the 120+ pound robots try to place inner tubes on a scoring rack without operator assistance. Then human operators guide their robots to pick up 3 different shaped tubes and place them on a rack to make the FIRST Logo. The finale of the event is when the teams launch their minibot to race each other up 10 foot towers. There is lots of action with six robots on the field!
Every year the game is different and every team has the same six weeks to create a robot to compete in the game. Every team starts with the same limited selection of parts and the same budget limitations. Working with teachers, mentors, parents, and engineers from sponsoring corporations, the kids work long hours to learn computer aided design, machining, electrical wiring skills, and programming in order to design and build their robots. As Woodie Flowers said "This is the hardest fun you will ever have. One of the goals is to make your brain hurt.” This model has proven very successful. In one study, kids who participated in FIRST were twice as likely to enter careers in science and engineering.
It has been so successful in fact, that then-Vice Premier Shimon Peres, currently President of Israel, called Dean Kamen in 2003 to ask him to bring FIRST to Israel. In 2005, a pilot program had 12 teams competing. At the 2011 regional, there were 48 Israeli teams, a Bosnian team and an American team. In addition, 150 FIRST Lego League (FLL) teams rocked the house at Nokia Stadium. There were teams from all sectors of Israeli society including Druze and Israeli-Arab villages. One of the Arab villages is home to Team Tamra, 1946. Their mentor, Mohammed Fadwah, was presented the Woodie Flowers award, a cherished honor given to an outstanding mentor. His team is composed 70% of girls; each year several of his students go on to the Technion (Israel's MIT) and other universities.
This is the sort of success that has some US educators demanding to have FIRST in all of their schools. Michigan, Rhode Island and Hawaii have set education goals to have a FIRST program in every high school district in their state. Seed money for new teams generally comes not from taxpayers but from corporations eager to see students enter STEM careers and fill their need for educated workers. Current problems have to do with local school districts cash-strapped to provide teacher coverage, transportation and tech-ed support. Luckily, in Region 18, support from all levels of the community have aided the success of the Lyme-Old Lyme High School TechnoTicks. They won the 2009 Chairman's Award, given to the team doing the best job pursuing the goals of FIRST. As the team motto explains “It’s in our blood!”. One of the new teams here in Connecticut we have helped this year is from the New London Science and Technology Magnet School. They were able to start thanks to a monetary grant from JC Penny. But their continued success depends on community support.
You can catch the excitement at the Connecticut Regional FIRST Competition this weekend April 1-2, 2011 at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford. Cheer on the New London team! Admission is free, but you must bring your children! Inspiration is contagious!
Note: This article was written prior to the Connecticut Regional FIRST Competition.