Change the World: Mentor FIRST Robotics

first-robotics-3322Team 3322 pit crew hard at work during the 2013 Bloomfield Girls Robotics Competition.

Atomic Object is a company of poly-skilled, generalist makers. Chances are, you too are a maker or manage makers. You understand the world can be reimagined, improved, and changed in big ways. You understand that technology isn’t some force of nature, but the creative output of many people.

Unfortunately that isn’t true for most kids these days. Schools mainly teach past theory. The present world is controlling, protecting, and closed. Students use technology, but they don’t own it.

The Need for Making

Fifty years ago, people worked on cars in the driveway. Kids could use everyday tools to take things apart and have a chance to put them back together. Devices were simpler and serviceable.

Today things are different. Everything interesting is hermetically sealed in plastic, accessible only by voiding the warranty. If a curious mind by miracle manages to get that far, the magic smoke has certainly escaped and the device will never work again.

The Maker Movement changes that imbalance of course, but only for those who have the means and connections. Laser cutters, Arduinos, 3D printers and CNC machines are amazingly accessible and easy to use. Everything you need to know is on the Internet just a click away.

But how does a student find a way into this world? Who makes the maker world of science and technology so exciting that kids want to own it? FIRST robotics does.

Teaching Kids to Love Making — Robots!

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is a robotics competition that was started by Dean Kamen in 1989. It’s grown to over 350,000 students and 64,000 mentors. FIRST has become an amazing community of students, mentors, and organizers that just works on several levels:

  1. FIRST is fun and exciting. We build robots that compete against each other in new games each year. WE BUILD ROBOTS! The team I help, Eagle Imperium Team 3322, kicked off the 2014 competition season last Saturday with all 70 of us watching NASA’s webcast of the rules. We have six weeks to build a new robot that can catch a yoga ball and throw it through a goal 8 feet in the air while getting bashed by (and bashing!) other robots.

  2. FIRST is real and rewarding. The robots are tough engineering challenges with real risks and rewards. Students can learn a huge variety of things such as machining aluminum in our shop, programing a real-time robot with C++, and building the team web site. There are also scholarships and increasing visibility for FIRST students. Elon Musk (CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors) recently remarked on CNN, “What we look for is evidence of exceptional ability… like they created something when they were a kid that was some cool technology, or maybe they won FIRST robotics competition or won a state science competition.”

  3. FIRST is gracious professionalism. The competitions are taken seriously, but the structure of the games ensure that teams work together and help each other. It’s common to find teams lending tools and debugging other robots at competitions. The same goes for mentors. Mentoring is a difficult job — there’s no training and nobody tells you what to do — but lots of support is available if you need it.

Join me and others at Atomic Object (which sponsors the West Michigan competition) in helping the FIRST community. Find a local team and see the difference you make. The next generation of makers will thank you.