Home Hanging with the Kids at the First Robotics Global Championship

Hanging with the Kids at the First Robotics Global Championship

Last week, the smartest kids on the planet came to St. Louis to participate in the First Robotics Global Championship. The event drew more than 2,000 teams from schools around the world to build three different kinds of robots and compete for some serious prize money. It is a very fun but challenging event: Each robot has particular tasks to perform, both under human control and under its own autonomous programs. The teams have just six weeks to design and build the robots and raise funds for the contest. In a sense, it is a lot like running a miniature business.

The event is held in the St. Louis indoor football stadium-cum-conference center, and it is big. Both buildings are filled with so much positive energy, and the level of activity is enormous and loud. There is an area called “the pits” where the robots are being tweaked and fine-tuned, and it is as active as a pit crew bay in an auto race. There are conference sessions where mentors talk about techniques that will help the teams develop the skills they need. And then, the actual football arena holds the competition area where the robots do their thing. This year, the older kids’ robots have to gather and shoot basketballs, which sounds easy until you see it in action. The younger kids have Lego Mindstorm obstacle courses to navigate. Here is a video of snippets from the event, including interviews with the contest judges and the volunteers from NASA who stream the event live online.

The amount of team-to-team cooperation is awesome: One team based in Detroit lost its sponsor, so another team took the time to build its robot. An Arizona team helped draw attention to its mostly Hispanic composition to bring other teams into the competition and to bring awareness to science and math education in the state. A team in Hawaii needed to increase the number of total teams to become a regional event: They started with four teams, and this year they have more than 30.

Last year, one team’s robot was lost by the airline baggage handlers, and within a few hours after a call had gone out the team had enough spare parts to rebuild their own robot and get back into the competition. Imagine if our World Series or Super Bowl gave out awards for this kind of team spirit, rather than honoring a single player.

As Dean Kamen, the originator of the event and the inventor of the Segway, said last week, “There are no losers to this competition.”

I am amazed by how many girls make up the contestants; some teams have more girls than boys on them. In a sense, participating in First is like building an actual business that has just a few weeks to operate. There are lots of different roles besides building the bots: marketing, creating a business plan, publicity, fundraising and other tasks. One of the kids told me, “You need to have a team that has to have a long-term sustainability plan; you have to have money and community partnerships.”

Does this sound like a child talking? Exactly: This event is building character, building entrepreneurism, and celebrating smarts. Where else can you find all of that in one neat package?

First attracts a boatload of corporate sponsors. Many of them are your typical high-tech corporations that have a lot of science and engineering talent and want to promote their brands. I spoke to a representative from the Gates Corporation, which is a century old and makes rubber belts. It has been a sponsor for many years and provides a set of college scholarships along with a trip for high school seniors to tour their engineering plant.

You might think at first that this is the last place that a company like this would be. But no: Every robot has some kind of gearing mechanism, and this low-tech company is actually working on some interesting high-tech materials for bicycles, for example. It donates $500,000 worth of belts each year to the various teams, in addition to their scholarships. Major sponsors such as Boeing and Motorola have hundreds of teams drawn from offices all over the world where they have major employee concentrations.

And new this year is Microsoft, which donated a Kinect controller to each team. Sadly, most of the teams didn’t end up using the Kinect in their final builds, mainly because it took too long to program.

Speaking of scholarships, First isn’t just about bots shooting hoops. There is serious money on the line for the graduating high school seniors, and one part of the convention is devoted to schools that are trying to snag the kids to come apply. More than $15 million worth of scholarships were available this year.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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