One of the challenges we face as a nation is getting kids excited about Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, or STEM, in order to develop the problem solvers of the future. One way I am helping to meet that challenge is by mentoring a high school robotic team – The Fighting Calculators.
The team recently participated in the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotic Competition, a program where high school students build robots and compete against other teams. FIRST encourages STEM education through a suite of robotic competitions, ranging from FIRST Lego League for elementary school kids up to FIRST Robotic Competition for high school teams. FIRST Robotics is the fastest growing sport in the nation. In Minnesota, there are more high school robotics teams than high school hockey teams.
The robots can weigh up to 120 pounds and stand 7 feet tall. Each year, the students are given a new mission, and then have six weeks to plan, design, build, program and test a robot that can perform these missions. This year’s mission was to shoot Frisbees into targets, and then climb a 9-foot tall pyramid. After the six week build season, the teams head to competitions. There are 50 to 60 robots at every regional competition. Teams compete in groups of three robots, called alliances. There are three red robots and three blue robots playing against each other. Some robots are designed for defense, to push other robots around and prevent them from scoring. Other robots are offense orientated. During a match, six robots zoom around the field leading to some substantial collisions. Designing the robots to withstand these harsh conditions adds to the challenge.
Like most FIRST Robotics Challenge teams, The Fighting Calculators are made up of a diverse group of teenagers. Some kids love to work at the computer, others want to get dirty working at the lathe, drill press or the milling machine. Some are outgoing, others are more reserved. The team must organize themselves to utilize all their collective strengths to accomplish the mission.
Designs are made, prototypes are built, tested and then revised. The team makes compromises in order to meet design objectives within strict time restrictions and budget constraints.
FIRST uses a mentor based philosophy to teach and inspire students. Practicing professionals donate their time to instruct team members in both technical and non-technical skills. Getting a 40-member team to collectively construct a robot requires communication and project management skills.
It’s not winning at all costs at the robotic competition. FIRST stresses good sportsmanship with a phrase they call “Gracious Professionalism.” Teams are willing to assist each other in any way they can, but then become fierce competitors on the playing field. Teams frequently help out other teams by loaning parts, proving technical assistance and offering support and encouragement.
Mentoring a FIRST robotic team has proven positive impact on inspiring high school students to pursue STEM careers. While keeping high school students enthused about academics is tough, more than 70 percent of high school students who participate FIRST report an increased motivation to do well in school. Once kids are hooked on this program, they usually go to extraordinary lengths to be successful. Team members routinely give robot demonstrations at elementary schools, community fairs, 4H clubs and even the state fair, ensuring STEM excitement starts at an early age. FIRST participants are passionate about this program. To learn more or to get involved, go to: http://www.usfirst.org or http://fightingcalculators.org/.
UPDATE: The Fighting Calculator team won the 2013 North Star Robotics Regional competition at the University of Minnesota on March 30th.