Popular Mechanics magazine included a 20-page FIRST Robotics supplement in a recent issue. The complexity of some of the student projects and the need for a 20-page supplement to explain the program gave me something to think about.
In 1991, the Foundation for Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) launched a program to get youngsters involved with science and technology by having them build robots. Those robots competed against each other in local and national championships. FIRST supplied a kit of parts that students used to build their robots. As I recall, the kit included rechargeable battery packs, small DC motors and some mechanical parts. The challenge involved collecting tennis balls and carrying them to a robot’s “home base.” Twenty eight teams competed in early 1992.
Over the years the FIRST projects have increased in complexity and cost. The current “What’s Involved” information states, “You’ll need professional engineers, adult mentors, high school aged students, sponsorship, a meeting place, access to tools and free time during the build and competition season.” Another Web page mentions the cost to enter at $5000 for a returning team and $6500 for a new team. That payment gets a team, “Participation in one 2011 Regional Event, the Kit of Parts, associated materials and support.” It looks like participation in the National Championship costs an additional $5000. (An entry from a new team costs more because it includes equipment, such as a computer with digital and analog I/O modules, batteries, sensors, and so on, that a returning team would already have.)
When I mentioned FIRST robotics competitions to a teacher at the National Science Teachers Association conference, she said she knew of several teams that spent more time raising funds than building their robot. FIRST has marketing “tools,” that include summaries, overviews, how-to-get involved flyers, and so on. There’s even a Team Marketing FAQ. So, entering takes a lot of money and more than just engineering skills.
Students, parents, teachers, and engineering professionals as well as supporting and companies might get a lot out of a FIRST competition, but it seems to me the entire operation focuses attention on bigger and better competitions each year with more “stuff,” more rules, regulations, and overhead. By the way, the latest financial report from FIRST, a non-profit New Hampshire corporation shows net assets of over $24 million. Hmmm.
I wonder what would happen if the students, teachers, mentors, and sponsors put their effort and money into better basic science and math education rather than in fund raising and complex projects that require “professional engineers.” –Jon Titus