With the recent release of the Experiential Robotic Platform, or XRP, we wanted to get it into the hands of as many similarly tech-minded folks around the world as possible, and what better way to do that than by pairing up with FIRST Robotics? Hear all about my trip to Singapore for FIRST Global!
Dean Kamen is a man with a vision; a vision of seeing technology in the hands of children throughout the world, seeing them excited about it, and that they may all have an equal opportunity for a future in STEM. Or, in his own words, “To transform our culture by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and technology leaders."
From this vision was born FIRST, an acronym for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. Started in 1990 by Kamen, along with MIT Professor Emeritus Woody Flowers, FIRST offers levels of learning and competition from preK through high school, with programs including FIRST Lego League, FIRST Tech Challenge, First Robotics Competition, and most recently, FIRST Global Global Challenge. It was this last event that found me in Singapore to witness it firsthand.
The core tenets of FIRST are quite straightforward. Both Kamen and Flowers envisioned an atmosphere of friendly sportsmanship, respect for the contributions of others, teamwork, learning, and community involvement. At every level, FIRST is committed to creating and cultivating a culture of equity, diversity, and inclusion. All of these are wrapped up in FIRST philosophies of Gracious Professionalism® and Coopertition®. Beyond that, they envisioned an environment of tech education that could be an after-school activity not unlike sports; led not by teachers in a stuffy classroom, but rather by coaches and mentors on a playing field.
FIRST Global brought in teams from 190 countries, plus one team called Team Hope made up of displaced students from refugee camps. One hall of the Singapore Expo was reserved for pits for all of the teams, plus a robot hospital and a pair of practice fields.
My first day there was still a prep day for the teams, and as I arrived, Mahdi, a volunteer and former member of Team Tunisia, offered to lead me on a tour around the pits. His enthusiasm to share this with a first-timer was palpable, so of course I accepted his offer. The team pits were laid out from one end of the hall to the other in alphabetical order. From Team Afghanistan to Team Zimbabwe, at least one member of each team (but usually more) were happy to stop working to tell me about their robot, their country, and their journey to FIRST Global, and all this despite the fact that the deadline for final robot inspections was looming. Many of the teams brought gifts that were native to their countries, and many brought food as well. Oh, so much delicious food.
Aside from the sense of welcoming, the sense of cooperation was apparent at every turn. A prime example - upon arrival of all the teams, Team Netherlands learned that their entire robotics crate was trapped in customs, back in the Netherlands. As soon as this news spread, teams from three or four other countries immediately started pillaging their own repair stock, and were able to come up with enough parts for Team Netherlands to build an entirely new robot there on-site. The spirit of cooperation continued throughout the entire week: not only courtside, but throughout the pits, at the cafeteria, and throughout the entire venue. That cooperation didn’t end with robots, either. Songs, dances, impromptu made-up football games, the spirit of togetherness and cooperation was pervasive and incredibly moving.
The cooperation on the playing field was compulsory, and for the ranking rounds, chosen at random. Three teams worked together against three other teams to score as many points as possible in the time allowed. However, additional points could be gained not only by cooperating with your teams, but with your opponents as well. Without these additional cooperation points, it would not be possible for a team to go on to win the overall individual team gold medal. This goes back to one of the core principles - while competition fosters advancements, the final goal can never be achieved without complete cooperation.
SO WHY WAS I THERE?
So at this point you may be thinking, “This sounds great, but why exactly were you there?” I was there as part of the team that has been working on the XRP, the recently-released developmental robotics platform. The group is a consortium of players, including people from SparkFun, WPI, DEKA Research, DigiKey, Raspberry Pi, STMicroelectronics, Dagu, and Allogy.
Our goal is very similar to that of FIRST - to get tech into the hands of every kid, and that’s why an event like this was a perfect launching point. We brought with us enough XRP kits to give one to every team, so they could take it back home and start working with it, sharing it with others, and sharing with us how they might alter or improve it to best fit the needs or dreams of students in their area. Because the XRP is open source and 3D printed, once people get through the established curriculum, they are encouraged to continue forward with new projects and new ideas. They are also encouraged to share those ideas, so that all can benefit from the collective knowledge as we continue to move forward with this exciting platform.
Handing out XRP kits to 191 teams meant that we got to speak with people from almost every country in the world. We got to share information, answer and ask questions, and interact with hundreds of like-minded people excited about technology, robots, and all things STEM. I spoke at great length with team members, mentors, volunteers, leaders in tech, university professors, and Secretaries of Education. Many of them, particularly those who run robotics seminars, educational programs, and STEM summer camps, wanted to know if they could buy them in bulk right then and there. Unfortunately, with our manufacturing still in its infancy, we only barely had enough for all of the teams to get one kit.
NOW IT’S YOUR TURN
The good news is that we now have production up and rolling, so you too can get your hands on the new Experiential Robotics Platform. The even better news - we really want to make these available to as many young people as possible. So, if you are an educator, if you head up an after-school robotics club, if you mentor a FIRST robotics team, if you run a robotics summer camp, if you are in almost any way involved in teaching robotics to kids, we want to help you out with discounted kits. Reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
So for those of you who want to know more about FIRST Global, here’s a brief recap. After a few days of team prep and camaraderie, Saturday night saw the opening ceremony. If you’ve seen the opening ceremonies for the Olympics, then you have an idea of what this was. Every nation enters, one at a time, waving their flag and wearing the colors of their country. The MC announces them all, tells a little about the country and the team representing them, and usually adds a pun or a joke for each as to how he thinks they’ll achieve victory. It is a beautiful show of pageantry and pride.
Once all the nations were assembled, welcome speeches were made by Dean Kamen, as well as Singapore’s Minister of Sustainability and Environment, Grace Fu; Kian Teik Beh, CEO of the Singapore National Research Foundation; and LAM Research President and CEO, Tim Archer. Additional speakers and presenters throughout the week included folks like Dr. Kelly Levin, Chief of Science, Data, and Systems Change for the Bezos Earth Fund; Dr. Sunita Satyapal, Director of the Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies Office at the U.S. Department of Energy; We were then treated to an incredible presentation by the host country, Singapore. Music and dances from traditional to modern were performed, along with a little history, and the evening ended with everyone in high spirits, excited for the start of the games the next morning.
The next two and a half days were filled with ranking matches. Alliances of three teams each were chosen at random to go head-to-head, scoring as many points as possible. Each team racked up points on their own, but there were additional cooperatition® points that could only be earned by all teams working together. Every ranking round had teams allied with different countries, working together, laughing together, and celebrating together.
Over the two-and-a-half days of ranking matches, when teams weren’t competing or making fixes, changes, and repairs to their bots, they were eating together, playing together, and memories and friendship that will last for years to come.
For the playoffs and finals, the leading countries were put into alliances of four teams, and these alliances would stay constant throughout the rest of the tournament. Since the format is three teams per side, one team would sit out each round, but every team had to play at least one round. The excitement in the last rounds was palpable, and the enthusiasm from the stands was contagious. Flags being waved, songs being sung, the entire atmosphere reminded me of the World Cup.
When the final buzzer sounded, and all the points were tallied, the winners were announced. Gold, Silver, and Bronze Medals were awarded winning alliances, as follows:
FIRST Global Alliance Podium
Gold – Hope (Refugees), People’s Republic of China, Vietnam, Eritrea
Silver – Argentina, Hungary, Israel, Angola
Bronze – Kazakhstan, Bolivia, Thailand, Montenegro
Individual teams were also awarded medals for finishing in the top three.
Gold – Kazakhstan
Silver – Venezuela
Bronze – People’s Republic of China
Additionally, there were over a dozen other award categories, like Engineering Design, Innovation in Engineering, International Unity, Sustainable Excellence, and many others. If you want to see a full list of all the awards and their recipients, you can see then full list here. One of my favorite awards, and I might be a little biased here, was the Women in STEM Award. My bias is because each of these young engineers was awarded their own XRP kit in a custom box plus support moving forward from Temasek.
I found this event to be inspiring, moving, and incredibly fun! If you want to learn more about FIRST, learn how you can get involved, or simply restore your faith in the next generation of engineers, here’s their webpage, and here’s the website for FIRST Global. Additionally, you can get a peek at the coming season’s theme here. And if you know even a little about me, you’ll understand how excited I am about the upcoming events!