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Robot Competition in St. Louis Might Help Engage Youth in Science

The kids learn to work in teams to use high-tech gadgetry in pursuit of achieving a complex goal in a field that is rapidly gaining traction in the global economy.

"The box is locked, the lights are on, it’s robot fighting time … in St. Louis!"

OK, the gladiatorial gizmos coming to our city won’t sport massive circular saws and seek to destroy one another with the finest death gadgetry that can be activated by remote control, but they can put the nail in the coffin by successfully deploying a poll-climbing mini-bot.

Wednesday marked the start of the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) Championship, the most important day of the year for kid roboticists from all over the world. And what better place to hold this epic event than in the building that housed the Greatest Show on Turf, the Edward Jones Dome?

Admission is free, and the event is open to the public. You can find the agenda for the event here. It runs through Saturday.

For the next three years, elementary, middle and high school students will flock to St. Louis in late April to show off their robot warriors. This year, more than 10,000 children from more than 30 countries will participate.

Elementary and middle school students take on their challenges with Lego robotics materials. In the two competitions open for high school students, the construction materials are a bit more involved.

The main event is the FIRST Robotics Competition for high school students. This year, robots must be able to pick up inflated tubes shaped like the pieces of FIRST’s logo and place the tubes on wall hangars to form as many replicas of FIRST’s logo as possible in the time allotted.

The first 15 seconds is an autonomous period during which robots take on the challenge without human control. Imagine Terminator with a passion for interior decorating. For the remaining time, the robots are remotely controlled by their teams.

And to add one more ripple, teams can earn a bunch of points by deploying a mini-bot from their main robot with 10 seconds to go in the challenge. The mini-bot must climb to the top of one of four polls in the arena to earn its team points.

All this from a group of roboticists who have yet to receive their high school diplomas.

The teams in the main event are actually alliances of students from different schools. There are no lone rangers in the FIRST competition. Had they not been able to cooperate in teams, these kids wouldn’t have made it so far as to compete in the championship.

These kids learn to work in teams to use high-tech gadgetry in pursuit of achieving a complex goal in a field that is rapidly gaining traction in the global economy. They learn the value of dedication to work outside of school hours. They learn that they can build something that is seriously awesome.

Of course, cost can be a major impediment to participation, but as long as these kids are learning so much, why not have them learn how to fundraise or apply for a grant too? A number of teams in Missouri received full grants from NASA this year.

This year’s FIRST competition is a great step forward for the schools in our area. Having the international competition in St. Louis will undoubtedly draw even more Missouri schools into competing in the coming years. And graduating thousands of high school students with this kind of experience will make for an exciting class of college freshmen undaunted by the rigors of engineering courses.

So far, it appears that FIRST is really helping to write this story of academic improvement. A Brandeis University study found that FIRST participants were more likely to study science and engineering in college than non-participants with similar backgrounds. It might not all be FIRST, but at least the type of skills FIRST encourages—problem solving, cooperation, dedication, and self-motivation—seem to play an important role in spurring academic success.

Not everyone is so happy with the increased involvement our children are having with robots. Only a few days ago, the Skynet system from the Terminator saga was supposed to launch its first missiles in a massive global attack. Today, the machines rise in St. Louis, but they have yet to figure out how to enslave humankind. When their creators make it a habit to dress ceremoniously ridiculous, they may have to rely on something other than their built-in cunning to achieve world domination.

Today, we are not fighting a war against the machines. We are fighting a battle against boredom. Kids are checking out of school at an alarming rate, in many cases because they aren’t engaged enough in the classroom. They don’t see the tangible consequences of their learning.

But when kids can see a machine, they spent countless hours working on getting it to actually kick a soccer ball into a goal, or piece together a puzzle, or deploy an unexpected strategy that shocks a stadium filled with onlookers. They can’t help but crack a smile.

That smile may be more than just a facial contortion brought on by relief. It could very well be a moment when a kid falls in love. Perhaps that love is directed to science and engineering. Maybe it’s for a way of life that values hard work.

But hopefully, in that moment, that child will fall in love with herself and what she can accomplish. Forget the Terminator fear-mongers. In that moment, FIRST will have helped provide us all with a better future.

Cindy April 28, 2011 at 03:31 PM
All three of my children are on a FIRST team in University City and I cannot speak highly enough about the program. The U. City High School team was on the St. Louis Regional winning alliance and is competing at the World Festival this week. In addition to promoting math, science, and engineering, team members also learn additional skills like research, marketing, and public speaking. FIRST engages children with a problem and challenges them to to research, design, and build a solution. As a parent, I would love to see schools take an educational approach that is similar to the hands-on approach of FIRST. It is hard to capture the thrill and excitement of the competion in a comment. If you want to get your kids excited about math and science in a super fun way, check out the international competition this Thu-Sat at the Edward Jones Dome. It's free. And, there is so many cool things going on besides the robot matches. For instance, MIT students are demonstrating flying robots.

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