A couple weeks ago, I had the privilege of helping judge the FIRST Tech Challenge, a Lego-sponsored competition for high school students to develop robots. These robots had to move a bunch of plastic rings from one set of hooks to a 3X3 set of hooks, with the higher hooks providing more points than the lower ones. The robots had to operate autonomously for 30 seconds before the students were allowed to use GameBoy (or equivalent) controllers and move the robots directly for two minutes. The students use the equivalent (in my ancient nomenclature) of Erector set parts or whatever they could fabricate for themselves to make the machines. Earlier (middle school) competitions build their machines out of Legos.
The FIRST competition has a whole set of referees who make sure the students’ robots–which are paired up in random two-robot “alliances” during each match–follow the rules. Prior to the robotic chaos of the matches, the teams have to give presentations to a panel of 2-3 adults explaining their machines, how they were built, and what they’ve done to demonstrate teamwork and FIRST’s watchword, “gracious professionalism” toward other teams. The judges (this is where I come in) evaluate their performance and ask questions along the way.
The panel I was on talked to three of the nine(!) teams from the Mississippi-Alabama-Georgia region and then spent the rest of the day watching the matches. We were fortunate to have talked to the Robot Programming Guild (a riff on “RPG,” which also can stand for “Role Playing Games–these kids were geeky and proud of it–one kid wore a chain mail helm he’d made himself). Their machine had a sturdy-looking scissor lift with a double hopper at the top so it could pick up two rings at one time. The most useful aspect of their machine was its set of offset, multi-roller wheels that allowed the robot to move forward, backward, and sideways directly. They found the wheels online, but couldn’t afford to buy them, so they downloaded a design and made the wheels themselves.
What I liked about this group was their general attitude. It was a group of five boys ranging from a high school freshman to a freshman in college, and they were all enthusiastic about talking about their machine with the confident, proprietary air of experts because they had built the thing themselves. Working with engineers on a daily basis, I recognized that enthusiasm easily. They would be working on hardware in the adult world soon enough. As it turned out, Team RPG not only impressed with their presentation but also on the playing field. Their rugged, highly mobile machine (I don’t think it had a name) was able to get around the field easily and survive a lot of collisions with other robots without much harm until just before the final round when a wire came loose. All hands were put on deck, with the adults talking with the students about where the problem was and how to fix it quickly, and the repairs were done. Team RPG went on to win the competition with the most overall points and the FTC Inspire Award for overall performance and teamwork.
It’s fun to watch these kids (sorry, I’m 43 years old with a grey beard–I’m using the word). I’m guessing they’re not typical of kids their age, but there were enough of them to give me something akin to hope for the future. My employer, Zero Point Frontiers, is very much about helping bring an advanced technological future into being and kids like these will be needed. Lots of them. The trick seems to be to get them working on real-world projects as soon as possible and getting them to think through problems. The teamwork and “gracious professionalism” aspects of the FIRST competition are likewise good training for students who hope to work in the adult world at some point. They are required to help other teams prior to the competition, encourage one another during the competition (while still working to win, of course), and work well with each other as a member of an “alliance” because this match’s competitor could be the next match’s partner. I don’t recall this sort of thing growing up. There were science fairs, but they were very static and not necessarily practical in their focus or outcome. All I know is that I was lazy at that age and not particularly interested in science as a career, and the system didn’t seem set up for anything resembling teamwork.
So the good news is, we’re starting to grow a new generation of engineers out there. If cars have become too complex to work on, robots are there to give students something they can bend and shape with their own hands. And along the way, they might learn how to work better in the professional world. All to the good, because I want the future to be cool, and that means having bright people around who can do the cool things. I’m just the writing guy. 🙂