A small team from SparkFun had the awesome opportunity to attend the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Championship in Houston a couple weeks ago. This awesome event, which hosted ~50,000 attendees, was a testament to the FIRST community's passion, collaboration and inspiration - and it went WAY beyond robots.
When we decided to attend the FIRST Championship, I knew we would be engaging with the creative energy and unleashed innovation of young people and their coaches/mentors who had worked tirelessly to get the Championship. I did not know just how inspired and energized we would be as a team. Here are a few takeaways from the event.
The Championship included teams from FIRST® Robotics, FIRST Tech Challenge, and FIRST LEGO® League; each of these three programs occupied its own unique space in the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston. Based on the recap from FIRST, there were about 18,000 students (nearly 1,000 teams!) from 59 countries competing in the competitions, with around 50,000 people attending in total. It is hard to imagine that this only represents a small percentage of total FIRST participants.
Every year, teams are presented with a new challenge - as soon as the challenge is revealed, the teams start designing their solution, which requires an interdisciplinary approach that includes programming, mechanical engineering, and electrical engineering (and much more). Once built, teams begin competing at the local and regional levels to make it the Championship.
On the opening page of the 2022 FIRST Annual Impact Report, it states: "FIRST has always been about More Than Robots®. We are an inclusive community preparing young people for the future. We're a global movement to get kids excited about leadership and innovation in STEM. We're a foundational ethos of Gracious Professionalism® and Coopertition®. We're a thrilling, inspiring sport where every kid can go pro." It is one thing to see these words written, it is a totally different thing to see participants model every aspect of this statement.
These students are developing a broad and deep set of skills through teams developing local programs to teach younger kids in their community, figuring out how to earn funding from local businesses, establishing relationships with mentors and business leaders, and creating a brand and marketing their team. Moreover, the ethos of "Gracious Professionalism" can be felt everywhere - from teams helping one other (even though they are competing), cheering for one other, relying on one another's strengths, and celebrating outcomes regardless of wins and losses. In addition, almost all the work done for these events and within FIRST Robotics is done by volunteers, from mentoring teams to event setup and judging.
It can be dangerous to open these comments to a group who is passionate about their avocations....
I have been a Mentor and an Assistant Coach of a FRC Team for over 13 years (or as we like to tell time 14 build seasons). I started with my daughter and then followed up with my son. After they both graduated I stuck around. This program is definitely "More than Robots", it build the character of the students and solidifies a direction they want to go in the future. I personally have seen students go on to do great things afterwards. We have students at a number of the best colleges in the nation.
Basically the students have 6 weeks (plus a bit) to build their robots. Technically this is a crazy, busy and nerve racking time. You compress the entire product development cycle down and then go into extreme prototype testing. These students learn all aspects of the process including the non-technical aspects like program management, team development, and stress management.
I highly recommend this program to anyone --- both students and mentors alike. Take some time and volunteer with a team or at an event. We are always looking for judges, inspectors, or just interested spectators.