Hanging out with the First Kids

If it is April in St. Louis, it is time for our downtown to be swarming with thousands of the smartest kids on the planet. They are here to participate in another First Robotics Global Competition, one of my favorite events to cover. For those of you that haven’t yet heard about this, the kids take part in this very fun and challenging event. They have to build and operate robots of varying shapes and sizes, depending on their age group.

The event is held in our indoor football stadium-cum-conference center, and it is big: both buildings are filled with so much positive energy and the level of activity is enormous and loud. There is an area where the robots are being tweaked and fine-tuned, called “the pits” which is as active as a pit crew in an auto race. There are conference sessions where mentors talk about techniques that will help the teams develop the skills they need. And then in the actual football arena is the competition area where the robots do their thing. This year the older kids’ robots have to gather and shoot basketballs, which sounds easy until you see it in action. The younger kids have Lego Mindstorm obstacle courses to navigate.

The amount of team-to-team cooperation is awesome: One team based in Detroit lost its sponsor and another team took the time to build its robot. Another team from Arizona helped draw attention to its mostly Hispanic composition to bring other teams into the competition and to bring awareness to science and math education in the state. A team in Hawaii needed to bring the number of total teams up to become a regional event: they started with four teams and this year they have more than 30. Last year one team’s robot was lost by the airline baggage handlers, and within a few hours after a call had gone out the team had enough spare parts to rebuild their own robot and get back into the competition. Imagine if our World Series or Superbowl gave out awards for this kind of team spirit rather than honoring a single player.

As Dean Kamen, the originator of the event and the inventor of the Segway told me this week, “There are no losers to this competition.”

I am amazed how many girls make up the contestants: some teams have more girls than boys on them. In a sense participating in First is like building an actual business that has just a few weeks to operate. There are lots of different roles besides building the bots: there is marketing, creating a business plan, publicity, fundraising and other tasks. One of the kids told me, “you need to have a team that has to have a long-term sustainability plan; you have to have money and community partnerships.” Does this sound like a child talking? Exactly: what is going on here is building character, building entrepreneurism, and celebrating smarts. Where can you find all of that in one neat package?

First attracts a boatload of corporate sponsors. Many of them are your typical high tech corporations that have a lot of science and engineering talent and want to promote their brands. I spoke to a representative from the Gates Corporation, which is a century old and makes rubber belts. They have been a sponsor for many years and also provide a set of college scholarships along with a trip for high school seniors to tour their engineering plant. You would at first think that a company like this would be the last place to be here. But no: every robot has some kind of gearing mechanism, and this low-tech company is actually working on some interesting high tech materials for bicycles, for example. They donate a half million dollars worth of belts each year to the various teams, in addition to their scholarships.

Speaking of scholarships, First isn’t just about bots shooting hoops. There is serious money on the line for the graduating high school seniors, and one part of the convention is devoted to schools that are trying to snag the kids to come apply.

Can’t come downtown this week? Don’t worry: you can watch a video that I did last year if you want to get some sense of the activity and energy of the kids at the competition.

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