Competition Inspires HS Students
the second day of the FIRST Robotics NY Competition, inventor
Dean Kamen, rolls by a sea of high schoolers, riding his Segway
Human Transporter. The crowd, eager for an autograph, lurches
forward to steal a peek at his famous invention. Gliding around
effortlessly, Kamen signs his name on tie-dye shirts while students
hand him gifts of inflatable hammers and candy. The Rolling Stones
thunders over the loudspeakers. A jumbotron flashes highlights
from the competition, as the crowd—a mix of cheerleaders, mascots,
fans, and parents—bursts in applause.
The atmosphere is electrifying—far more reminiscent of a pep rally
than a science competition.
The FIRST Robotics Competition (For Inspiration and Recognition
of Science and Technology), is yet another of Kamen’s wildly successful
inventions. It has been energizing students for the last 11 years
by inspiring them to pursue careers in the fields of science and
Recently, more than 1,000 teens and spectators gathered in Columbia
University’s Dodge Fitness Center to watch teams from 21 New York
City high schools, six surrounding states, and the UK compete
in the three-day event. Teams fought to secure a place in the
championship event hosted by Walt Disney World’s EPCOT at the
end of April.
This was the second year the regional competition, sponsored by
The Goldman Sachs Foundation, was held in New York City.
Each year, FIRST gives high school students six weeks to design
and build a 130 lb. problem-solving robot; a remote-controlled
combination of motors, pistons, and gearboxes assembled from a
kit provided by the organizers. In order to keep design teams
on their toes, robots must be able to complete complicated tasks
that change each year.
In this year’s competition, students designed robots to race around
a playing field and collect soccer balls. Teams then needed to
place the balls into goals and drag the goals back to scoring
zones—all in under two minutes.
Building robots for FIRST is not just an assembly job; it is a
very sophisticated engineering challenge. Long before building,
teams must seek help from mentoring teachers, scientists, and
engineers. They must also secure sponsors–a key step in a competition
that can cost up to $5,000 per event, not including the cost of
travel and accommodations.
In addition, teams must adjust to an environment that is both
competitive and collaborative.
For example, Long Island’s Smithtown High School team won the
All Star Rookie Award for dividing their team according to financial,
marketing, graphic arts, and mechanical tasks. Their use of creative
writing, art, math, science, and technology characterized the
interdisciplinary learning encouraged by the event.
For FIRST, robotics provides a foothold for transforming the way
schools think about studying science.
One of FIRST’s goals in New York, for example, was to change the
way schools treated science and technology. “I have seen schools
really go through incredible change in terms of their culture:
student perception of themselves, teacher perceptions of what
they can achieve. And that is something that our schools badly
need,” said Lucia Martinez, co-director of NYC FIRST. “We need
something that tells them ‘You are great. You can do it just like
schools do it on these teams.’”
A number of participants expressed that can-do attitude by praising
the value of experiencing science hands-on. Jackie Tan, of the
Art and Design High School, remarked, “Instead of sitting there
reading newspaper articles and books on science we’re actually
experiencing it. We’re actually doing it and putting our hands
on it. It’s completely amazing.”
was great to get an idea in our heads and actually build it and
watch it work. We’re really proud to watch what we created work.
It was a great feeling,” said Rookie Greg Lovine, of West Xavierian
in Brooklyn, standing next to the team’s robot “The Clipper”.
Changing student attitudes toward science and technology is an
important task in light of a recent study that ranked U.S. high
school students behind their Canadian and European counterparts
when it came to proficiency in both academic areas.
But while the competition has helped to rejuvenate science education,
some of FIRST’s greatest benefits have been experienced by the
participants themselves— teens that make up the more than 650
teams nationwide representing nearly every state.
you talk to these kids you’ll know that they’re not building robots.
They’re building self esteem; they’re building relationships with
real professionals. They’re seeing that the world of science and
technology and engineering is fun,” explained Kamen. “It’s for
women. It’s for minorities. It’s for anybody willing to put passion
and effort into it. Now every one of these kids believes that
thinking and designing and inventing and building is fun.”
And making education fun can amount to big changes.
Watching his team make repairs to their ‘bot’ after a particularly
rough battle against another high school team, Patrick Dzioba
of Watertown High School described his experience with FIRST:
“Personally, it changed me immensely. Before this, I thought my
life’s ambition was to grow up and become a tattoo artist. Now
I’m thinking about computer science actually.”#
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