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FIRST Robotics: Sharing the Love of Science and Technology with Students

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If you don’t work in the technology sector or have children who have an interest in the subject, you may not know about FIRST® (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to show students of every age that science, technology and problem-solving are not only fun and rewarding, but are proven paths to successful careers and a bright future. To help drive the mission, professionals in the technology sector act as mentors to students from age 6 to 18. Students master skills and concepts to aid in learning science and technology through innovative projects and robotics competitions, while gaining valuable employment and life skills.

Part of the FIRST program is the FIRST® Championship, which includes three different robotics challenge events: the FIRST® Robotics Competition (FRC®) Championship, the FIRST® Tech Challenge (FTC®) World Championship and the FIRST® LEGO® League (FLL®) World Festival. Teams compete in regional and district championships throughout the United States and globally to advance to the Championships held in April in Saint Louis, Mo.

Team 3932, The Dirty Mechanics of Boca Raton, Florida, won their seat in the 2014 FIRST Championship by competing in and winning the Fort Lauderdale regional FIRST competition. They would be one of only 3 teams out of 47 to earn the right to advance to the Championships. It’s an extraordinary experience and an honor to be a part of such a great team.

FIRST Robotics is like a dance party crossed with a large-scale sporting event built around a technology boot camp mixed in with a healthy dose of racecar style mechanical frenzy. In the first week of January each year, teams are given a new game manual that sometimes approaches 100 pages. This manual also includes supplements with schematics of the field components, a set of rules and scoring algorithms and a kit of parts that includes a robot controller and everything you would need to build a basic robot drive train. It is the team’s job to build a fully working machine designed to play the game better than any other team’s machine…in six weeks or less. At the end of six weeks, the robots are “bagged and tagged,” not to be touched until the competitions begin. Every year it’s literally a new game.

This year’s game consisted of a great deal of passing and shooting. An exercise ball has to be inbounded by a human player, picked up by the robot, shot over a six-foot truss to another robot and then either pushed off the field at floor level or shot through a goal roughly six feet off the floor. This is not an easy task to build a machine for!

The Orlando regionals were a challenge for The Dirty Mechanics, but we still made a good showing. In the pits there are many teams to meet and greet as you strategize for your next match. Teams exchange buttons and other tokens that can attain top status among fans. For example, Team 1523, M.A.R.S., gives away inflatable aliens while Team 179, Children of the Swamp, gives away small stuffed alligators. It’s all part of creating a culture of camaraderie, cooperation and having fun while competing.

In Orlando we were selected as one of the teams that would advance to the quarterfinals, but we were unfortunately eliminated. Instead of competing, we enjoyed watching the best robots go head-to-head while dancing to songs like “Gangnam Style” and “YMCA” between rounds.  We would come away, however, with some hard-learned lessons and improvements made under the pressure of the competition. These improvements would provide us with a more reliable autonomous game allowing us to consistently drive forward, detect the range to the goal and fire at the correct power, angle and distance to put the ball in every time. These improvements, along with the improved skills of the drive team, would help us go on to win the Fort Lauderdale regionals along with Team 180, Spam of Jupiter, Florida, and Team 179, Children of the Swamp of Riviera Beach, Florida, which enabled us to travel to Saint Louis for the Championship.

In Saint Louis we ran up against some of the best robotics teams in the country. At the beginning of the day our mechanical systems didn’t work as consistently as they had in Fort Lauderdale. While we would end the day on a high note with all systems working as they should, it wouldn’t be enough to put us into the finals when competing against the other world class teams. The Dirty Mechanics had a respectable finish in the middle of the pack of FRC teams at worlds.  In the FTC league, however, another local team, Eagle Robotics of Delray Beach, Florida, would go on to take a world championship title in the FTC league.

Ultimately, no matter where teams place, participants grow from the experience. Students learn how to solve real world problems with Science, Math, Engineering and Technology (STEM). Mentors teach potential future talent how to build a better robot. Everyone has a fabulous time. I can’t imagine a better way to mix students with business in order to foster an interest in STEM.

For more information, visit http://www.dirtymechanics.org or usfirst.org.