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FIRST Robotics Competitions: Can (Lots of) Kids in Braces Help Foster Consumer Adoption?

There are a few ways to increase the acceptance and adoption of consumer robots. One way is to build better robots. Another way is to educate consumers about what robots can (and can’t) do for them. Another is to create a diabolical army of robots that kill off all the humans so it won’t matter. Assuming the first two methods are more practical, one might want to focus on the next-generation of consumers and business leaders. You know, those sentient (at least after noon on weekends) life-forms in our homes we turn to for setting up and programming our gadgets. The ones with dental apparatus more expensive than our most prized 60-inch HDTVs. Our kids.

Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway people mover, founded FIRST in 1989 with the mission to “transform our culture by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and technology heroes." Now 20 years later, FIRST (an acronym of “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology”) has grown into a huge worldwide competition for kids of all ages. The goal of First is not only to inspire young people to be science and technology leaders but, by engaging them in mentor-based programs, help “foster well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication, and leadership.”

The FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) is FIRST’s flagship program geared towards high school students. Once a small robot competition with a few dozen schools involved, FRC now engages 17 hundred teams made up of 42 thousand high-school students from 48 U.S. states and 10 other countries. Along with FIRST’s other competitions which include a junior robot competition and LEGO-building programs for younger kids, FIRST engages almost 200,000 students, 85,000 mentors or volunteers, and involvement from more than 3,000 corporate sponsors.

Each FRC team gets the same starter kit of parts and has only 6 weeks to build a robot that can perform several complex tasks sufficiently enough to compete against other robots. The teams need to enlist the support of at least one adult mentor and raise $10,000+ to fund their venture. The competition is clearly a fun adventure, but the teamwork, mentoring, and knowledge of the applications of robots are strong by-products of the competition. Over the years FIRST has also awarded almost $10 million in scholarships to over 630 worthy recipients.

Hear about the program firsthand from Oliver Jenkins, a student at Nashoba Regional High School in Westford, Massaschusetts.

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The question is, will all this effort be enough to build a future society more receptive to consumer robots? Will the kids involved help future companies build better consumer robots that become more a part of our daily lives? Will FIRST at least succeed in building awareness for what robots can do, and inspire the imaginations and pocketbooks of future consumers? I think it will. The FIRST program is the type of immersive mentoring program that seems to stick with kids as they grow up, as can be witnessed by several of the FIRST alumni.

The only problem I have with what I have seen is that the robots built with the starter kit seem to be rather impractical. They are large, heavy, expensive machines designed to do something fairly unsophisticated and not terribly helpful to most consumers (like throwing a ball). Perhaps FIRST will expand its program to include a college-age version where students are mentored to build practical robots with different consumer utility? Either way, FIRST is to be commended for how it is engaging engineering-oriented kids at an early age, and fostering them through a series of age-appropriate programs and competitions.

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