What is the FIRST Robotics Program?

FIRST Robotics began in 1989 as a way of encouraging students to choose careers in math, science and technology, while also building their life skills and instilling a spirit of “gracious professionalism” and humility in its participants. Without “chest thumping” or “sticky-sweet platitudes,” as the site explains, young people engage in competitions where they build robots.

The Junior FIRST LEGO league is for 6-9 year olds. The FIRST LEGO league targets younger children ages 9-14, while the FIRST Robotics Competition helps high school age students. The FIRST Tech Challenge provides more affordable robotics technology to high school students. More than 137,000 kids participated in last year’s program, spanning across 42 countries from Germany and the UK to Turkey and Israel.

FIRST Robotics founder Dean Kamen is an inventor, physicist, engineer and entrepreneur. He is perhaps best known for inventing the Segway Human Transporter, an environmentally friendly short distance travel solution. He’s also developed the HomeChoice portable dialysis machine (Baxter Healthcare) and the Independence IBOT 4000 mobile robot system (Johnson & Johnson).

He’s currently working on a water purification system that promises to provide clean drinking water to 1.1 billion people around the world. For his efforts, he’s received the Heinz Award in Technology, the National Medal of Technology presented by President Clinton (2000) and the Lemelson-MIT Prize (2002), among others.

For 2009, the FIRST Robotics Competition will be called “Lunacy” to celebrate the 40th anniversary of our moon landing and will be held in Atlanta April 16-18. This year’s autonomous robots will be restricted by size and weight (no more than 5 ft tall, no wider than 38 inches, no deeper than 28 inches and no heavier than 150 lbs) and must be able to pick up orbit balls (2-point moon rocks, empty cells and 15-point super cells) and transfer them into a trailer hitched to their opponent’s robot in just two minutes and fifteen seconds.

While 80-90% of the teams participating this year will be returning from previous years, there are 300 rookie teams joining as well. Of course, even given the charitable contributions, each team will likely need to come up with $9,000 – $10,000 to cover meals, transportation, lodging, food, robot parts and lab fees.

The Baby Boomers grew up fascinated by the Space Race and the emergence of heroic astronauts as role models. Today’s youth are more into computers. Even so, television shows like “Mythbusters,” “Build It Bigger” and battling robot competitions are trying to intrigue young people to look to physics, engineering and technology.

However, hands-on learning with robot design events like FIRST Robotics may be what really helps seal the deal. Andy Bell, a product manager at National Instruments, explained, “Working with colleges and universities enabled us to help educators shift from lecture-based learning to hands-on learning. Through our partnership with Lego, we saw an opportunity to do the same with an even younger audience… and do so in a very engaging and entertaining way.”

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