Give kids a robot, and they play for a day. Teach them to build robots, and they realize the power of math and science, learn technical skills, get inspired, and ultimately restore US technological competitiveness, fix global warming and cure malaria. At least that’s the goal.
FIRST Robotics (FR) runs a yearly robot-building competition for hundreds of high school teams across the U.S. and as founder Dean Kamen says, “every kid in First Robotics can turn pro – there’s a job out there” for them all.
Mentors are a vital component of the FR organization. They are engineers and business people teaching skills like coding, good design methods, organization, safety procedures, or as I like to call it retaining all your fingers. Intellectual Ventures is a big supporter of FR. Geoff Deane, the VP of engineering at IV Lab, volunteers his time to serve on the FIRST-WA board, where he helps promote FIRST programs across the state. Intellectual Ventures encourages employees to mentor teams as well as contributing money, which is critical when a robot costs $8,000 – $12,000 to build.
The Build-Season began this year on Saturday January 6, at 7 AM PST. All across the country the new challenge was unveiled at the same moment. It’s a party scene at 7 AM; students are decked out with team shirts, signs, silly hats and anything else that could be construed as festive.
A good engineering challenge is a deeply compelling thing, and this year was no exception, build a robot that throws frisbees and can climb a tower. Across the country participants and mentors became instantly engrossed by the problem, talking about solutions, thinking of supplies they’ll need and throwing out serious and absurd ideas in the same breath.
“Should the robot throw the frisbees? Can it melt a stack of frisbees together and catapult them into the goal? Should it pick up frisbees with a scoop or a suction or brushes, or maybe impale them with a spiked stick?”
The possibilities, especially in young minds, are endless (though as it turns out, melting or impaling frisbees is illegal). In the end, the team I sponsor, Roosevelt High School (team 4180!) settled on a design that will maximize the number of people that can be involved. The robot will shoot frisbees and do a chin-up to the first rung of the tower.
A great part of the tournaments is to see the vast array of engineering solutions. A hundred robots and each one is different. But, regardless of which teams win the tournaments this year, they are all taking the first steps toward becoming the scientists and inventors that will one day solve the big problems facing our world.
Seattle teams are competing in the regional competition on March 29. Wish the Roosevelt team (and the other teams) luck! You can follow the bot-building competition on IV’s Facebook page.
Based on a report by Charles Delahunt, IV Laboratory