A week ago today, I was at Kings Dominion in Richmond, VA with a bus load of high school kids who had lost a robotics competition. I was so tired the day passed in a haze, but the kids had a blast. They needed this day at Kings Dominion; they deserved it. Beginning in January, they had spent six weeks building a robot to compete at the FIRST Robotics Competition at VCU’s Seigel Center on March 7, 8, and 9.
FIRST is an acronym meaning For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. FIRST’s mission is “to inspire young people to be science and technology leaders, by engaging them in exciting mentor-based programs that build science, engineering and technology skills, that inspire innovation, and that foster well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication, and leadership.”
FIRST was founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen, an inventor and entrepreneur who holds over 400 patents for his inventions, among them many medical inventions including the wearable insulin pump, the iBOT wheelchair, and the Segway human transporter. His current invention is an advanced prosthetic arm that should advance the quality of life for returning injured soldiers.
FIRST changes lives. This is a statement I do not make lightly. Grundy High School started a team in 1999 and I have been involved since the beginning, becoming its coach in 2006. How an English teacher ended up coaching a robotics team is another story entirely! But it has been the highlight of my 31 year teaching career.
I know how hard this year’s team worked because I was there. I watched them juggle school work, jobs, and sports, while designing, building, and “praying over” their robot they called The Witch’s Revenge. Our team is aptly called Maximum OZ because like Dorothy in The Wizard of OZ, we have learned that with the help of our friends, we can overcome our fears and obstacles to achieve our goals.
Building a 120 pound robot that can compete against 67 other team’s robots is a feat that cannot be accomplished without the help of the entire community. In that sense, Team 388 is blessed. Grundy’s civil engineering firm, Terra Tech Engineering, has mentored the team since its first year. They provide guidance to the team from designing and building to programming. Other area electricians, machinists and computer technicians also donate their time to make this happen. College mentors who are former team members are also an important part of the team. Many of them are pursing degrees in engineering, science, and technology because of their involvement while in high school. Parents pitch in and help with the countless fundraisers it takes to fund the project. Did I mention that the team must raise the money to compete and travel to the competitions?
I know that after that initial six weeks when they had to stop working on the robot – finished or not, the team worked on programming, and its presentation for the Chairman’s Award. The Chairman’s Award is FIRST’s highest honor, going to the team the judges deem all other teams should emulate. The Chairman’s Award process includes an essay, team-made 3min. movie, and a 5minute presentation all prepared by the students on the team. They did not win this award either, but they were deserving.
There are many other parts of this process that I haven’t mentioned here. It takes hours and hours each week to prepare and execute this project. Even though this team didn’t win this year, Team 388 has won the competition in 2003 and 2004. They have also won the Chairman’s Award, the Engineering Inspiration Award, the Judges Award and the National Judge’s Award, and the Team Spirit Award. Not too shabby for this little team from Southwest Virginia.
FIRST Robotics is about so much more than building and competing a robot. It’s about community service and teaching elementary and middle school kids about robotics. It’s about gracious professionalism and leadership. It’s about being committed to building the future. From what I saw in Richmond last week and from Team 388, the future is bright, indeed.