Four high-school students from the FIRST Ligerbots team based in Newton, MA, recently gave me renewed confidence in the future of engineering in the U.S. The quartet was on hand at PTC's Media Day in February to discuss their involvement with FIRST's Robotic Competition and to preview the robot they are building and busy readying for their first competition in Worcester, MA this month.
FIRST is a non-profit organization founded two decades ago by inventor Dean Kamen. Recognizing the need to foster a passion for science and math in young people in grades K-12, he created a program that helps students get some practical experience and to learn how what can seem like dry, abstract concepts in the classroom apply to something real.
Students at the high-school level, like the Ligerbots, design and build a robot in an insanely short six weeks, then take it on the road to compete with other student teams. Working from a standard parts kit, which includes motors, sensors, electronics and pneumatic components, teams have a high degree of flexibility in designing the robot's mechanical footprint, drive train and control system in an effort to best the competition.
The Ligerbot team's robot this year is designed for speed and maneuverability, which they hope will give it the champion's edge. However, beating their rivals isn't the only goal. "You might think the main objective is to win," said Sophomore Paige Grody. "And while that is true, it is also about learning to work together and building something from nothing. It's about getting real experience and skills that you will need later in life."
Just as is the case with professional engineers, the Ligerbots are getting plenty of experience in making design choices and trade-offs — and learning how to defend their decisions. Furthermore, all FIRST teams are using many of the software tools employed by design engineers, including PTC's Pro/ENGINEER 3D parametric CAD/CAM/CAE software for the robot design (PTC engineers have created CAD libraries of all the parts for use by teams), WindChill for CAD data management and collaboration, and NI's LabVIEW and CompactRio to program and control their robots.
Ligerbot team member Elie Glik (aka the "software guy"), probably didn't need an extra nudge from FIRST to spark his interest in math and engineering. But it has given him some practical, hands-on experience. "I was told that when I was only one or two years old I liked playing with the remote control," he said. "So I guess I've always been interested in the mechanical side of things. I also write software, and FIRST has given me the chance to experience the convergence of the two by helping to design a robot."
PTC's Robin Saitz, senior vice president and executive sponsor for PTC's sponsorship with FIRST, said that it's important for companies like PTC to support and inspire the next generation of engineers, with a nod to the Ligerbots team members. "We're like a fine wine — we'll just get better as we age," Grody immediately quipped to the journalists and analysts in the room.
I, for one, have no doubt about that.