Monday, April 21, 2014

Everyone Goes Pro with Robotics

Posted by Corky Ellis

Anyone who feels pessimistic about the future of America should go to a robotics competition or at least watch the video I took at the FIRST Robotics Competition Pine Tree District event. Hundreds of New England high school students did "Gracious" battle at the Androscoggin Bank Colisée in Lewiston, Maine in front of 1,000 screaming, chanting fans. Teams from all over New England placed their robots on a 54 by 24 foot (about 16 by 7 meters) playing field, picked up 3 foot (about 1 meter) diameter bouncing balls, and threw them through targets and over obstacles—all while being bumped and blocked by other machines.



Hundreds of volunteers helped organize this massive effort. Each team has adult "mentors," which are usually local engineers working at technology companies. At least 30 judges struggled to interview and qualify each team for the many awards like Industrial Safety, Engineering Excellence, Creativity, Spirit, Gracious Professionalism, and the coveted Chairman's Award. Referees provided order to the seeming mayhem, and the best organized teams seemed to have a committed math, physics, or science teacher from their own school willing to put in endless hours of fun and overtime.

It was breathtaking to watch.

A Valuable Learning Experience

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was founded by inventor Dean Kamen (of insulin pump and Segway scooter fame) and Dr. Woodie Flowers. These guys are very smart. They have enjoyed successful careers, understand what it takes to run a business, and have created this international organization with more than 250,000 involved students because they believe that the United States needs to send students the message that technology is the future for many of their careers—and that this message is all the more effective when done with an emphasis on giving back, helping opponents, and encouraging other teams at all ages to follow their lead.

The competition was also a celebration of a lot of things.

  • Hard work. These kids had been working with their mentors on average 30 hours a week after school since January to build and test their robots in preparation for the competitions.
  • Values. This isn't only about beating the other teams. Teams are awarded prizes for promoting robotics at younger ages in their communities, for their commitment to social causes, and are even rated on how effectively they work with other teams—especially opponents. Need a new battery? Other team members rush to help. Lost a screwdriver? I saw multiple instances of other teams interrupting their efforts to help out. The FIRST Robotics term is "Gracious Professionalism" and these kids live those values laid out by Kamen and Flowers.
  • Teamwork. These teams are like small businesses, and the kids figure it all out. Some teams have 60 members; some have 10. All have structured themselves into functional groups like mechanical design, electrical design, drivers, human resources, and administration.
  • Growing up. These kids have to develop a plan, raise money from business sponsors, build the robot, practice, schedule up to 60 teammates, and negotiate for practice space. They are devouring valuable lessons about building things and organizations.

I interviewed almost all the teams as they sweated over last-minute pre-competition tweaks to their machines. I met a young woman who said, "I never thought I could do this, and I'm not even good at math, but I want to be an engineer." Another said, "This is the most fun I've ever had in my life." A 13 year old woman, clad in machinist overalls, described to me how she had learned how to operate a lathe to machine some of the metal supports for their robot. A young man said that he was going to be a history teacher, but now he was thinking of being an engineer. In all of their faces, you could see passion, focus, and complete dedication to what they were doing.

Accomplishing Major Feats

Some teams had 60 members, well-oiled presentations, were expert at raising money, and had sophisticated robots. One of the more sophisticated and experienced teams came from Jay and Livermore Falls, Maine—two towns with a paper mill history, now struggling—but you wouldn't know it from these kids. Their presentation was smooth and well organized, their robot competed well, and their list of community accomplishments was inspiring.

The Old Town team, led by a charismatic physics teacher from the high school and several dedicated mentors from local firms, was enthusiastic and talented. Falmouth/Gorham competed impressively, as did Spruce Mountain and last year's top award winner, the Infinite Loop team from Messalonskee, guided by Robotics Institute of Maine leader, Jamee Luce, who is a major driver of Maine's effort to raise its game in robotics.

Jamee believes passionately that the path to generating more engineers in Maine travels straight through robotics. "Competitive robotics provides students with the hands-on experience that they are missing from their current educational experience. These programs inspire students to think about the world from a completely different perspective: one where they learn that hard work and complete dedication pay dividends in the long run. They understand the importance of being highly skilled in technology, leadership, teamwork, and project management. This is the future of Maine, and we are making a positive difference."

Making a Difference

By the end of the competition, I was dumbfounded. I played football in high school and college and captained my college lacrosse team, but I had never seen such intensity and focus on the athletic field as I saw on the faces of these students. I wondered about the prioritization of athletics in our schools. I don't know what the budget for a high school football team is, but I do know that a helmet for one of the forty team members is almost $300. When our Robotics Institute visits high schools to advocate that they start a team, principals and superintendents regularly say that they can't afford the $6000 cost of buying a robotics starter kit. This makes one wonder about the priorities of our schools, and even of our parents—and I was one of the worst offenders.

So, here's what I'm thinking. Just as there are soccer, basketball, baseball, football, and lacrosse teams at most high schools, there should be a robotics team. If fully-funded by the school at a minimum of $10,000, it is certainly still a lot less than an athletic team. If we are serious about creating more jobs in Maine, we need more engineers and technically literate graduates. Almost nobody is going pro in football, lacrosse, or baseball in Maine. But if every school in Maine started a robotics team, I think we could radically increase the population of tech-savvy graduates. That would create startups, attract big tech companies (whose first concern is finding engineers), and support the tech companies already here. Frankly, it would help a lot more than cutting taxes. And salaries in those jobs are high. Tech people can also become teachers, salespeople, and even go to Wall Street (ouch). 

Committing to Maine's Future

Parents, teachers, administrators, and business executives, it's time to move on this. Commit! We could transform Maine's economy with this hard—but simple and clear—effort. Demand that each high school and middle school form a robotics team! Do it now. Your children will love it, and will learn teamwork, values, and enjoy competition every bit as intense as that on a playing field. Oh, and they just might stay in math longer and become one of those engineers, QC testers, tech support, and salespeople that companies like IDEXX, WEX, Tyler Technologies, and Kepware are looking for. 

So, go to one of these events even if you don't feel good. Tell your children that they should do it. If your school doesn't have a team, gather a group of parents, find a faculty STEM teacher who will invest the time, and start one. It teaches everything that sports teams supposedly do and more: teamwork, spirit, cooperation, competition, hard work, and discipline. There is a big difference though. As Dean Kamen is fond of saying, to paraphrase, "Nobody is going pro in football, but everyone is going pro in robotics."

Think about it.